Space Wurm vs Moonicorn: Wrapup and Critique

Adios Amigos

We decided to shut down our campaign of Space Wurm vs Moonicorn last night.

It had been 3 weeks since we played last, and before that we’d gone through another 3-week break. The breaks, combined with the demands of adult life, meant the stoke had escaped. I rely on their stoke more than they rely on mine, I think. I was ready and prepped — see the new and revised situation map (my new term! R-maps are yesterday’s tech, S-maps or smaps are tomorrow’s!) — but before we started, I talked with each player about how into the game they were feeling. Every one of them had some variation on “I could take it or leave it.”

I confess I was a little heartbroken, but I’m a service-minded GM and I can’t see asking a roomful of adults to participate in something they could take or leave, whatever, coin toss.

Honestly I probably could have gotten them engaged again. And then next week’s July 4 long weekend, we’d take another break, and then try to get it up and running again. Too much, too much, too much. Which is probably the theme of the game itself: it’s Too Much … unless you can recruit committed players who are ready to work hard and keep a lot of really weird shit in their head.

I’ll share my final takeaways about Space Wurm vs Moonicorn now, in stream of consciousness bullet form for your confusing bathroom reading:

* I’d totally run this again right now, new setup, and I’ll happily bring and run the one-shot to any convention. It pushes a lot of my aesthetic buttons just right and the tornado of grabby bits the game creates is maybe unique in my experience. I also have a huge, deep, abiding love for serious space opera — think Dune, not Flash Gordon — and that can carry me lots of places.

I was asked at NewMexicon why Space Wurm vs Moonicorn succeeds and I had too many small answers. My big answer is that it’s a tornado of grabby bits wrapped in irresistible colors.

* I have a new and serious respect for Dungeon World. I don’t really enjoy D&D style play, but I understand it. DW is a very happy midway point for my traditionally minded players to meet me way over in indieland.

The common move structure, other than the utter lack of support of PvP social tension, is an excellent match for SWvM. It gave me the affordances to easily nudge the game back into action/travel/discovery territory. It could have so easily wallowed in, well…PvP social tension. As much as I wish there were something procedural in place to introduce uncertainty when The Lover and Space Wurm (frex) have a dynamic, passionate quarrel, that absence meant that the game would quickly return to the creative space sketched out by the DW common moves.

I was wrong about Dungeon World. Now I’m thinking it’d be a gas to get in on one of the Chaos World settings at some point.

* Only one friction point between me and SWvM, and that’s the competitive superstructure of the game. Lots of parts to this bullet.

The non-star players agreed that their characters were largely reactive to whatever Space Wurm or Moonicorn were up to. This is by design, since the whole game is paced to the stars’ struggles. Like, the Lover could pursue her own agenda: in our game she’d been granted power over the Transport Guild. Bandwidth-wise there was just not enough air at the table for her to set up and execute the Ceremony to change the guild from clan control to a free market model. Some of that is having to learn how to apply the Ceremony rule well — it’s basically a faction-level version of Apocalypse World’s Workshop rules. And the Other playbook is, I think by design, designed more to wander wide-eyed and chaotic through the world rather than pursuing any internal needs. The lack of internal motivation wasn’t a showstopper, but it kept those players from fully investing.

Then there’s the Victory in Battle move, which is necessarily abstract and detached from the fiction. It’s a notable exception to the PbtA orthodoxy of fiction-first move triggers. Yes, literally the fiction of having defeated a Front’s Danger has to have occurred to trigger the move. But it’s not a discrete player moment; it’s not driven by a player decision. Rather, the GM has to decide if the danger has been defeated. Usually it’s pretty apparent in the fiction when that’s happened but I constantly felt insecure about when and how to make the call. In fact at one point it seemed like Space Wurm might have defeated a danger, but my brain warred between the “was that really the danger?” and “is it too soon?” impulses, and I withdrew my nod.

Victory in Battle also generates a necessarily abstract result: Space Wurm takes over the Front, and Moonicorn is free from the Front’s hunters. So there’s a lot of hand-waving between 1) defeating the space god’s avatar haunting the world lost inside the hypervoid, 2) pulling the world into normal space, thereby curing the Space Madness, and 3) ta-da, Space Wurm is now in charge of all interstellar travel! I’ve been well-trained by other highly abstract pacing games like Burning Empires so I’m okay with disconnects like this. It’s no big deal. It’s like the break between seasons of a TV show. Time passes, here’s a new situation. I think my play-the-day habits of old are in there pretty deep, though.

* The staggering array of questions Metzger throws at you for every Front and Danger can feel overwhelming, and it’s on you to put your foot down when you think you have enough material. On the other hand, you might not know if you really have enough! I forgot to pursue some of the drill-downs on one of our Fronts, and it showed like 3 turns in. You can see the blanks on my revised smap (start practicing now, folks, you’ll be hearing smap at next year’s con panels) where we hadn’t really drilled very deep, then time passed, and then they were on to focusing on a different front.

Now that I’ve run a mostly complete game, I think I would spread the attention around the Fronts more and work on integrating the materials more firmly across all the Fronts. The Religion and Interstellar Travel Fronts/Dangers were very well connected, and it was great! And the Spice stuff was definitely present — there was an important weird-psychedelic-drugs subtext to the game — but I could do better. It was the kind of thing that wouldn’t be apparent unless you’d run a Fronts-heavy game of Dungeon World I think. I don’t really use ’em formally in other PbtA games but Fronts are formally required in SWvM.

Don’t know that I have a lot more to add here. Very, very fun game, I have a new appreciation for a different game I thought I didn’t like, and I’m sad/disappointed that Space Wurm vs Moonicorn demanded more from its players than we could provide.

26 thoughts on “Space Wurm vs Moonicorn: Wrapup and Critique”

  1. Thanks for the detailed breakdown. Valuable as always.

    And I for one am glad to be on the ground floor of smap. I look forward to the inevitable screaming matches discussions as to whether the s, m, or both, ought to be capitalized

  2. But but… I just learned how to use r-maps… Now there’s s-maps!? Though the s-map does look beautiful, and at the same time terrifying. Very exciting.

  3. Paul Beakley – Could you talk a little about the holding environment?

    The name of the game implies that it would have some pvp tension baked into it in a core way, and the fact that it doesn’t is more than a little disappointing.

    But I’m also open to the possibility that the holding environment will be interesting enough to lessen that disappointment.

  4. It’s the situation that keeps the PCs together.

    Monsterhearts has a very simple one, but it works great. All the PCs are in the same class in high school.

    Apocalypse World and Cartel have very similar ones. The PCs live in this town (or hold), but it’s just not that big. So they’re going to have to run in to other before too long.

    By contrast, the holding environment in Urban Shadows isn’t that great. Sure the PCs are all in the same city, but it’s so big that it’s possible to have entire sessions where the PCs barely interact. Now, the Debt mechanics and Faction Moves help out quite a bit, but it’s still a problem with the game.

    And base Dungeon World doesn’t actually have one at all. It’s just able to borrow D&D’s cultural inertia and have it work out most of the time.

    That’s what I mean by “holding environment”

  5. Oh. There isn’t one. It’s on the players to drag each other and themselves into scenes together.

    That did come up a couple times, where SW and M were pursuing their own agendas and the non-stars had to decide where to appear. And then they’d be all “well jeez, it’s more fun when we’re together” and concoct meta-reasons to get the band back together again.

    That sounds like it’d be a huge showstopper but it really wasn’t.

    Mostly they really are both more interesting and more effective when they’ve chosen to work together. Very much like Urban Shadows I think! One of our four players was utterly unequipped to direct her own experience that way, and relying on the GM to provide the structure and impetus to share space with another character sucks so bad.

    Since we were 3/4 self actualizers I kind of forgot about that part of the game. But it’s a legitimate issue for some play styles.

  6. I should say the Fronts and the perpendicular goals of the stars do serve to structurally put them together: the spice guild is sending assassins? Hey, help me take over the spice guild and those assassins are history! Stuff like that.

  7. That’s disappointing. Like I said in my last post, the issue in Urban Shadows is mitigated, somewhat, by Debts, which help to create pvp tension and force PCs together. But if SWvM also lacks those kinds of tools, then…..I dunno. I can’t seem to think of another word besides ‘disappointing.’

  8. I hear you! And you’ve got me thinking about why this wasn’t a major issue for us.

    There are some moves in the non-star playbooks, as well. Like, the bulk of the Lover’s stuff has to do with helping the stars or manipulating them into doing what she wants them to do (via incentive or implied threat). But without a player willing to create and pursue their own goals, I’m not really sure how potent that is in keeping the Lover, at least, in proximity to either star. In fact that character did pursue some stuff, but there’s the bandwidth problem I mention in the OP.

    The Other’s main jam is that it can give its Heart to another character and they both benefit (ish) from it. So there’s usually an aptitude drive to hang out with someone, anyone. But that’s not a fictional thing, that has everything to do with the Other’s player wanting to engage with the Heart rules.

    During setup, there’s a thing you do where once Space Wurm has laid claim to two of the five available fronts, the remaining 3 get divvied up among everyone else. Part of the divvying is that when you’re paired up with a Front, you get some strong fictional-positioning benefits: if you’re associated with Interstellar Travel, then you might have special access to starships or if you’re associated with the Spice, that means you can always get your hands on some. Stuff like that. And since the stars are driven to engage with those Fronts, that connection is usually their “in” with it. It’s very effective!

    In our game, I made an error (IMO) in that we only had 2 non-stars for the 3 Fronts. So instead of giving both supporting characters a connection to the third Front, I took it instead. It works, it was okay, but it meant that nobody had a special investment in it or provided a special in to SW or M. I think it’s not a coincidence that that was also my under-developed Front: note the big blanks in the Neuronium zone on my smap.

  9. Can I just say that something I love (in a non-ironic, this is a valuable piece way) is the little piece of text that establishes that this is a game that Space Wyrm wins or Moonicorn wins, unless you abandon the game, in which case you all lose.

    Paul Beakley, YOU LOST. You thought being a GM would keep you safe, but nope, you lost. Your record: 0W-1L.

    More seriously, it is always heartbreaking to lose games when you’re engaged on them. Here’s to better luck in the future!

  10. Would you expand a bit on why you were wrong about DW? What did you feel were problems and what’s changed in your mind?

    I have AW, but I’m unsure about DW.

  11. I felt like DW didn’t have nearly as strong an editorial voice as AW and what I think of as the “good” hacks: Sagas of the Icelanders, Monsterhearts, Urban Shadows, etc. And it doesn’t. But! It provides a really compact set of tools that maps traditional roleplay to the particularities of PbtA style play. Insert huge dumb argument here.

    SWvM in particular orbits around fairly traditional adventure tropes and DW turns out to work well for that. And given the high weirdness and collaborative vibe of the game, the two “please tell me things” moves (Discern Reality and Spout Lore) were vital.

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