Tight Setups and Oppressive Social Footprints

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.

0 thoughts on “Tight Setups and Oppressive Social Footprints”

  1. I feel this so hard. It’s probably the main reason my group doesn’t get very excited about Hx/bonds/strings/whatever, because there’s no point building up a nice pool of influence on a character who might not be there next time.

  2. Yeah, it really is tough. My bypass on this for Circles of Power was to use a common pool of NPC’s as a common reference point. I mean, if Rolfball is bound to multiple PCs, he becomes the new load-bearing social pillar instead of the PCs. This isn’t a perfect solution though by any means.

  3. Seems like a continuum to me. You either have those tight recurring relationships or you slide toward something more episodic. There’s no free lunch.

  4. Phil Lewis so…in television, right? I mean we all I think secretly look to TV for gaming inspiration and fictional guidance. But on TV where you’ve got the cast-of-thousands type shows? Say…Lost or The 100 or whatever. They start out with everyone intermingling, great. But later you’ve got episodes where you only see A, B and C together doing their stuff and X, Y and Z are ignored until the next episode. Of course writers have absolute control over that stuff, and the audience one assumes is present for every episode, so they’re the ones providing logical continuity.

  5. I don’t know…Didn’t soap operas solve this issue 50 years ago?

    I mean what are all of these games but RPG soap operas.

    What happens on a soap when an actor leaves, or a actress gets unexpectedly pregnant, or someone takes a leave of absence to film a movie or for health reasons.

    The story just churns on week after week anyway right?

    How do they do it and how can those techniques be adapted to the RPG table?

  6. Adam D somehow we’ve arranged to play, I think, 11 sessions of Seafall with precisely the same four players. But boardgames =/= RPGs. I lose my juice if we miss more than a couple weeks. It’s just pffft.

  7. But what I thought you were writing about based on the title is how what has become the de facto indie world building set up takes a huge chunk of time (that sort of social footprint). Generally PbtA con games spend nearly an hour on set up. It’s mostly good stuff, but it could be way streamlined. I look at Lady Blackbird for that. “Here’s the backstory, here’s your cool characters, now go.”

    But that’s not what this thread is about! Sorry.

  8. OMG I agree so hard on this. Urban Shadows is wonderful, but we play two hour sessions with 5 guys, of which 3 show up about once a month each. It’s hard to NOT end a 2 hour session on a cliff hanger and then 2 people don’t show up next week.

    Edit: last session we ended with a firefight as one vamp tried to wrest control from 12 other family heads. The Fae was in the middle of it. Other folks on the outside. Fae can’t make it tonight so what the hell?

  9. Oh, yeah, coming back to an episodic board game where the game itself locks down your fictional position is much more straightforward. Coming back to an RPG with GM notes scribbled across an R map, a dozen note cards, and a prep sheet; players who only take notes if they like to, and only to the detail they want; all sorts of intangibles that emerged during play and maybe didn’t even get written down. Trying to come back to that after more than a week is a nightmare, unless you’re not too concerned with precision.

  10. You beat me to giving a shout to trad games on this one. In our old HERO campaign, the GM basically handled all of this, and it worked pretty well.

    An adjunct complaint I will add is that this connection stuff is a hassle (sometimes) in one-shot/con play. IMO. Buncha foreplay but then you run out of time for the actual sex.

    Aside: I think Spirit of the Century was maybe the first “setup is play” games.

  11. MotW “solved” it by having completely non mechanical backgrounds, and using a stat-based move for Helping. It is more team/mission based than most PbtA games, though, and doesn’t lend itself (or need) a complex relationship map.

    I really like the tech embodied by Masks’ first mission questions, where the team establishes how they came together. I’ve also played around with using flashback scenes to help flesh out connections in a one shot. There may be some room there for a directed set of questions for bringing in a new character. This doesn’t answer the potential disruption to the fiction as established, though.

    You kind of have to inoculate against a missing person derailing events because too many story or mechanical connections have been established to that person. Encourage folks who are isolated from each other to have scenes together so they have something to fall back on. Spread the strings around.

  12. It is sticky, but couldn’t the group form their “bonds” to match the schedule issues invloved? For your drop-in why can’t he play an inherently unstable role? Fewer and lighter bonds frees the group to play on while the drifter is away. Not as rewarding for the drop-in but a result of circumstance.

    We have two in our regular group. One plays a messenger type and plays 50% of the time. The other a Monk with an isolated abbey that 75% of the time requires his attention beyond the main story line.

  13. Johnstone Metzger oh yeah, wanted to drop a line about how to deal with who’s “attached” to the third front when there are only two non-SW or M players. That’s where I was perceiving the game being tuned to 5. Good point about ties tho.

    (I was thinking maybe both are attached to the third one but in different ways? I can talk about that in another thread.)

  14. Micah Shaeffer as a practical matter, my unstable people are not stable in their instability. Adult stuff — parenting or job or whatever — crops up, like, the day before/of and then I have to scramble.

  15. You know the perennial conversation about “How do we get more people into the hobby?” Back in the 70s it was open games that did it. Colleges had game clubs that kids could just show up to with their characters and play. Or if you knew there was a regular game at Berkeley or wherever, it was just part of the culture that they’d likely let you play if you were going to be in town. Then the culture changed from open games to closed games by the early 80s. You can’t hope to create a story like the inspiring fantasy epics with a constantly fluctuating cast of characters. It was thinking about this that made me want and design The Clay That Woke so campaign play with drop-ins was possible.

  16. Keith Stetson that point is equally legit: I wish there was a faster way to get at the situational richness. I don’t love the hour-or-so of setup either. But pregens and set situations don’t work for me, personally.

    Jason Morningstar has produced a couple of terrific, smart situation/r-map type playset things for Sagas of the Icelanders and damned if I can make them work for me. The one time I tried, I feel like I spent more time explaining the connections than if we’d just invented the connections ourselves, and enjoyed all the authorship that goes with it. But that’s on me; I assume I’m missing necessary skills to make those playsets work.

  17. Paul Beakley would you be able to make SotI connections with players unfamiliar with the setting? I think that’s where Jason Morningstar’s stuff shines the most.

  18. Paul Beakley
    > […] than if we’d just invented the connections ourselves […]

    I imagine your group understands the ins-and-outs of Icelandic society circa 900AD, and these connections are easy to make up. Have you tried it with a group completely new to the setting? The relationships alone don’t feel like they’d get it “right” if you’re unfamiliar.

    The premade trees show unfamiliar people How It Should Be, I think. Once you have some sessions under your belt, or have watched enough Vikings on TV, you could probably just wing it.

  19. With Turn, my shapeshifter game that’s pulling from AW with a few things I’m patching together otherwise, I have two elements of setup: town building and relationships.

    Town building (talked about a little here: http://www.briecs.com/2017/02/town-beginnings-in-turn.html) handle the history of the town, political and social conflicts, and so on. John W. Sheldon and I have been doing various things to show how these different aspects impact a game. When you create the towns, you create more bloodlines than players, so there is always an option to build a new character or have a new player join.

    Relationships are just questions. There’s no mechanical impact. They give some narrative guidance for how you interact with the other players. While your relationships with other PCs directly impact progress and gameplay, they are not given any associated stats or bonuses. That way, someone can come in without messing up the mechanical layout, and leave without it, as well, in part because (as some of the relationship questions indicate), there is always someone to disappoint, to make proud, and hurt. No math required.
    briecs.com – Town Beginnings in Turn

  20. Brie Sheldon nice! I was thinking that purely fictional relationships might actually be the solution. There’s an awful lot of incentivizing baked into/assumed to be part of the AW style, right? Like, if I don’t get a help/hinder bonus or a special move or advancement or something does it even matter?

    The dark underbelly of the indienerd culture that swears up and down that they’re just there for the stooories.

  21. Paul Beakley Totally! I understand the impulse to incentivize them, I do! After all, one of the key elements we unfortunately often say about games/gamers is that social relationships are ~’~so difficult and unnatural~’~ for most players, so we have to encourage people to have them by giving them cookies, right?

    Sometimes it’s thematic (debts in Urban Shadows) but it’s not needed all the time. In Turn, if you don’t have someone to trust, you are screwed. Basically, if you are about to turn into your alternate form (beast or human), another shifter can calm you down and reduce your stress. If they don’t, you just turn and then have to work your way back to the original form. It’s not a mechanical penalty or reward, it’s a narrative impact. If I were to mechanize this, making people have to have relationships for certain bonuses, or reduce those relationships simply to bonuses, I think it would lose the need – the story fails if you don’t do the thing, basically.

    I hope that makes sense! I am sometimes bad at explaining how the game works without John (I get too excited).

    For me, you can have all the strings in the world, but if the relationship doesn’t matter in the fiction, it’s still boring.

  22. Paul Beakley Haha. I love MH SO much but strings are only good if you have a really cohesive group and GM, in my opinion. I see their purpose, I do. I just… ehn. Sometimes they really felt extraneous to me? And like, I will just straight up not use mechanics if they don’t fit for me (see: me with Shadowrun: Anarchy & the Cue system and Edge). I don’t want to design a game that feels like that with something as essential to the setting as relationships.

  23. Jason Cordova and Richard Rogers who play a lot of Gauntlet Hangouts games almost certainly have thoughts on this subject.

    I think Phil Lewis makes a good suggestion here. Ars Magica does the whole one person plays the wizard and the rest play their helpers and you have a troupe of wizards and thus a troupe of helpers thing. I certainly could see doing something similar:

    Everyone makes two or three characters and you create bonds or whatnot with those there at the first session. You play until someone has to drop out or you want to bring someone in and then you put that story on hold and swap to the new set of characters and create bonds there. Then continue mixing and matching.

    I think you could also do things where you tell stories earlier or later in time with some subset of characters. So you have five players in your party and two can’t make it this week. So you play a vignette about the three characters the players still around play that gives some background about who they came to become a party.

    To be honest I think SWvM could be one of the best things you could play to facilitate this kind of episodic structure. If you have two players who can commit and can be trusted to be there consistently you can have them play SW and M. Then you can just do something similar to what I mentioned above having a stable of other characters and you can tell different stories, from different times/struggles between SW and M.

    You could even take it a step further if you are willing to see SW and M as eternal aspects. There always has to be a SW and a M. Then when your SW or M players are absent you play a scenario that happened with previous or later incarnations of SW and M.

    I know The Gauntlet does what Jason Tocci suggests and replaces Bonds with Flags – so the characters are individuated and their flavor is easily understood to new players but you don’t have to have deep connections with other PCs which are just worthless when those other players are absent.

    This is kind of why I have been tossing around in my head replacing Bonds with Beliefs from Burning Wheel, possibly stipulating that one or two of them need to be about another PC. The thing is, at the start of each session you can dump or revise your beliefs.

    The thing to think about here is what is the utility of Hx/Bonds/etc? It is twofold:

    * it creates drama and connection and backstory instantly at character creation (community even)
    * it mechanically rewards the exercise of those links, in either a positive or negative way, but it rewards playing with “community” and inter-character relationships in mind

    If you want to continue in that vein you need to figure out what kinds of mechanisms you can come up with to create connections quickly between characters that haven’t been seen in a story yet (ie the drop in) and incentivize exercising those connections.

    The other thing to think about is, if you are going to have a varying cast – does the “meaning” of the story have to come from long intense story arcs between the same characters? Can it come from small vignettes of subsets of a larger cast? Should it come from the larger factions at work in the world itself where the players are just small cogs in the grander scheme of things. (I think SWvM kind of lends itself to this thinking.)

    Finally, I will note that I just watched an episode of Adam Koebel’s (fantastic) Office Hours show (

    ) that covered a chunk of this stuff. He also talks about dealing w/ missing players in Episode 3 (

    youtube.com – Office Hours Episode 40

  24. I thought about putting heavier character ties in MASHED, but in the end I went with simple Hx. (I couldn’t very well ignore it anyway since “Hx” is already a medical term!) In the game, Hx is a mechanical and story benefit, but not one that (I feel) would be a disruption if the person you have Hx on goes away. The game also indoctrinates you into Hx being fluid, since you change how your Hx works with two other Roles if you end up changing our own Role.

    Of course, I benefit a lot from the setting and the episodic nature of M*A*S*H (one of the main inspirations, natch). You can easily excuse a character disappearing by saying they had to hop in a jeep and go to the front or maybe they even got transferred or sent home (eg., like Trapper did in the show). Then the CO can make a hard move to give the remaining ally Stress to try and deal with the loss.

  25. Heh… Thanks. More thoughts:

    Something else that you should keep in mind: everyone has history of some sort with a whole lot of people. I feel like this would be intensely true with something like AW where you (likely) are in a community – there are plenty of npcs (who could become characters, whether they have ever had any screentime or not yet) and it would make tons of sense for characters to have huge lists of Hx as player characters cycled in/out of play. The community aspect though is the thing that makes sense out of the fact that all the PCs have some Hx with this new-to-the-audience character.

    This might be harder to have make “sense” in the fiction if you aren’t in some sort of community. It could make sense for one PC to know this new person, but the more people who supposedly have history, the more you tug at the believability of the narrative.

    I also want to note, and this is totally just my opinion: I think (as a group) caring about how the whole entire world/story looks is a good thing. I think focusing on that and not just your individual characters can really lead to meaningful stories being created. I think having a rich tapestry built over time not just made up of the stories of three or four characters is beautiful. (I think this is also why we are starting to see games (Urban Shadows and The Watch for example) have built in tooling that eventually retires characters from player use.

    The huge long campaign is kind of the Holy Grail of gaming (I can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to play in like a 36+ session game of Burning Wheel), but it seems like it is becoming even more unlikely these days and especially as adults to make something like that happen. And that is okay. There are other beautiful meaningful moving stories to tell but they might be told with a bit more alacrity or by only looking at a brief chunk of time in a character’s life. Though maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch them again some other time down the line.

  26. And I might as well say one more thing: I am looking forward to the games that will be coming out in the future that take into account how we play now (ie not historically). Games that are built around the fact that there will be a rotating group of players… Games optimized to be played via video chat… Etc.

  27. Krendel works relationships in what may be the opposite way you describe, and, as a result, it doesn’t run into the problems you describe.

    Your drives (motivation and temptation) are what fuel you, but unrestrained ambition is the ruin of the world.

    Relationships serve to keep us in check, putting limits on that ambition [and thereby building society]. If they restrain them, then why bother? Because then you know you can trust someone you have a relationship with.

    The formation and definition of them is kept pretty simple as well. One person writes the first half and the other writes the second half. Its fast, enormous fun, and has given players all the depth they need to get going. Someone drops out, no worries, you don’t lose any advantage. Someone drops in, repeat the formation process as desired to illustrate your past with that character.

  28. Paul Beakley, it just dawned on me, the solution to drop ins and outs is to have a different game set to go for each possible subset of players. So when players 1, 2 and 4 show up, it’s Monsterhearts; 2, 3, 4, 5 is ApoWo, 1, 4 and 5 is BW, etc. I know you have enough games in your backlog for every possible combination. Easy peasy.

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