There’s a kind of RPG — frequently but not always PbtA-style — where an important part of setup is arranging big sprawling social contexts. Hx questions in Apocalypse World, debts in Urban Shadows and Undying, bonds in Sagas of the Icelanders and Dungeon World, plain old relationships in Mutant: Year Zero and its adjuncts, arguably beliefs and instincts aimed across the table in Burning Wheel (which is best practice, not mandated by teh roolz).
I love these. I miss this setup when it’s not available. I think it produces measurably better games, where “better” means strong interpersonal drama. I think the tidal wave of AW-derived games reflects that, like, pretty much everyone agrees with this assessment.
But oh lord these games are exceptionally terrible at handling unstable player groups. Someone drops out, well that sucks if you have tied up your play juice with arrows pointed at their characters. Here is Hx I can’t use, bonds that won’t get spent, advancement I can’t earn. We’ve loaded so many mechanical incentives into building and managing these tight webs that if they’re not there, you get measurably screwed. And it’s not just mechanical, either: there’s spotlight time to consider as well.
Drop-ins are almost worse, right? Nobody is pointed at you, so now you have to work extra-hard at leveraging all those out-arrows. And there’s just something about drop-ins, especially when they’re a permanent addition, that’s permanently bad-disruptive to the initial setup. The first idea seeds, which are so important for everyone’s buy-in, are often incompatible with all the later idea seeds.
Of course there are upsides. I remember many, many years ago when Vincent Baker expressed (maybe mock-) confusion about the popularity of Apocalypse World as a convention one-shot game. He’d built it for campaign play, right? But the setup is just so very rich and tight because of all those great Hx questions. I think every game that uses that kind of setup, really the first and biggest of the “setup is play” tools, makes for a really strong con one-shot.
But lordy, for a group that cannot guarantee that precisely the same number of folks show up session after session? They’re feeling to me more like worst-case choices.
Some of these games have done a little to ameliorate that, maybe not on purpose. Sagas of the Icelanders lets you rewrite/redirect two relationships at the start of every session, which is fantastic. It also includes the Wanderer playbook, which is specifically good for airdropping a new player into a table. Dungeon World’s Bonds are okay-ish at it but you have to fiddle with the RAW a bit around the rules for resolving old Bonds and writing new ones.
It makes me think that one of the unsung virtues of mission-focused trad play is that it’s actually a bit easier for irregular groups. When we played 13th Age, it was no big deal at all to have folks come and go. Heck, waaay back in my Rolemaster years I had two circulating groups of like 6-8 players each, and the members would intermingle and folks would flake all the time. No big. There are no particular inducements or incentives for interacting with each other, other than the tactical benefit of doing so.
This has me thinking about designing around the challenge of real-world adult groups going forward. We’re about to start Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, but we only have four who can be relied upon and one more who might be able to drop in once in a while. Argh but those starting Bonds questions! Argh but SWvM is tuned to five players!
I mean, yeah. It’s not that hard for folks to just rewrite their connections when folks appear and disappear. But that’s landing a lot of damaging hits on the shared fiction, isn’t it? At least that’s how it feels whenever I’ve done it.
Feels like an as-yet unsolved challenge: how do you get that tight story-driven interpersonal web every session while both maintaining continuity and allowing for variable participants. Toughie.