Drifting games, genre limitations, and fruitful voids

In another thread @Reynard talked about Generic vs Bespoke systems, and I thought I'd spin that off onto what makes a system "bespoke" and ensures that you can only play a game in that style and can't drift it. Now clearly most games can be drifted and some games have a design that works against their intended playstyle; one famous game of katanas, trenchcoats, and fangs was intended to be "a game of personal horror"

The archetypal "bespoke" system was My Life With Master - the game that the term Storygames was created for because it deliberately and intentionally only lasted a short time (three or four sessions) and always told the same basic story of master repeatedly abuses minions until one minion snaps and tries to kill the master - after which the game ends. PCs (i.e. minions) are only mechanically measured on three things; their stats of weariness and self-loathing, and the little snippets of love they've picked up on their way. Pretty clearly you couldn't run many things with those stats.

Another way of making a non-generic game is to deliberately break the actions to reflect how the characters are broken in the genre. To illustrate this I can think of no better game than Monsterhearts, about the Teen Horror genre (filtered through an HBO lens). Monsterhearts is a hack of Apocalypse World in which there are five stats; Hot (for seduction or manipulation), Cool (for holding steady and doing things under pressure), Hard (for intimidation or violence), Sharp (for reading a person or a situation), and Weird (for psychic stuff). By contrast Monsterhearts has four; Hot (for seduction or manipulation), Cool (for holding steady or shutting people down), Violent (for lashing out or running away), and Dark (for weird magic). There seems to be something missing there. There is no Sharp stat equivalent in Monsterhearts. This is because these screwed up teenagers do not know how to understand people or situations (unless they get way down the XP track when they can learn). Also although both games have a Hot stat Apocalypse World has two; one to seduce people and a second to manipulate them. Monsterhearts deliberately just has Turn Someone On to try to do either or both at once - or you can bully people by Shut Someone Down. These kids really are not all right and are entirely not ready for adulthood. And having such broken moves pushes play hard into the bounds of the genre.

This all overlaps with the concept Vincent Baker calls the Fruitful Void; there is no Defiance stat in My Life With Master in part because the game is all about defiance. Leaving things like Defiance out of MLWM or Sharp out of Monsterhearts creates a void that the game as a whole points to and that the players need to fill in themselves in play; this is not just leaving them out because they are irrelevant but creating a need to work through things.

But most games, even fairly thematically tight ones don't do that. They have a wide range of skills modelled so the characters can do most things that are appropriate for the setting. It's IMO something that should be done a whole lot more, especially by home game designers because, although it's harder to do, it means that your game won't play like related ones with slightly different subsystems.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
I really hate the concept of 'Moves.' Viscerally. I don't even particularly like the idea that D&D has an Attack action with rules that make it fundamentally different than some other ability check. It smacks of restriction for the sake of restriction, and the idea of a game limiting what a PC can actually do by simply not having a defined "action" for that action kept me away from PbtA for years.

I finally got an opportunity to play Blades in the Dark with some folks I trusted to do it well, and that experience went a long way toward softening my attitude toward the concept of moves, particularly broad moves, but most of what you are describing here is the very core of nope.

That being said, I do really like this idea of the Fruitful Void, that the core objective of the game is something with which the game itself does not allow direct interaction, and towards which it instead expects the players to devise their own approaches.

I think BECMI and AD&D1, as written, kind of do that, weirdly. The goal is to end up with a long, successful adventuring career, but aside from a somewhat nebulous authorization for the dungeon master to make what arbitrary decisions they deem necessary to ensure the enjoyment of the players, all the game gives you for tools is a brutally fair system for simulating lethal combat and dangerous environments and the rewards for engaging both. As many have noted, the latter does not automatically feed into the former, is often at cross purposes with it, and I'd argue was a major driver of the entire "storygame" movement.

Of course, as this idea has also been at the center of a lot of contentious argument about the nature of D&D, to this day, I'm sure there's got to be a better way to handle it.
 

The thing is that Blades doesn't really have moves. Apocalypse World does - but with the arguable exception of Gather Information Blades just has a skill system where every roll is consequential but every skill is used straightforwardly as that skill. Monsterhearts very much does - but Monsterhearts is its own thing.

The AW moves aren't intended to limit you so much as are based round what a freeform roleplayer in that situation actually does. They don't limit you any more than D&D not having an engineering skill, for example, gives you a very limited ability to engineer. Instead they provide focus for what the characters actually are expected to do in that game. Bend bars/lift gates in AD&D would be effectively a move (with far less detail) - it's something focused on in a way that makes it more inspiring.

And AW is built round the rhythm of freeform and doesn't feel intrusive if you're used to nothing or freeform. But it really does if you're too used to D&D with its own rhythms.
 

ThorinTeague

Creative/Father/Professor
I really hate the concept of 'Moves.' Viscerally. I don't even particularly like the idea that D&D has an Attack action with rules that make it fundamentally different than some other ability check. It smacks of restriction for the sake of restriction, and the idea of a game limiting what a PC can actually do by simply not having a defined "action" for that action kept me away from PbtA for years.
Am I correct in understanding that you dislike a turn based TTRPG? I am curious to know what alternatives there would be.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
The thing is that Blades doesn't really have moves. Apocalypse World does - but with the arguable exception of Gather Information Blades just has a skill system where every roll is consequential but every skill is used straightforwardly as that skill. Monsterhearts very much does - but Monsterhearts is its own thing.

The AW moves aren't intended to limit you so much as are based round what a freeform roleplayer in that situation actually does. They don't limit you any more than D&D not having an engineering skill, for example, gives you a very limited ability to engineer. Instead they provide focus for what the characters actually are expected to do in that game. Bend bars/lift gates in AD&D would be effectively a move (with far less detail) - it's something focused on in a way that makes it more inspiring.

And AW is built round the rhythm of freeform and doesn't feel intrusive if you're used to nothing or freeform. But it really does if you're too used to D&D with its own rhythms.
Yeah. The basic move sets in Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World tell you what sort of situations are supposed to be sources of tension, where the conflict space lays within the game. This can be extended through custom moves. Regardless there will be all sorts of actions most characters will take that will help to build towards conflicts. In Blades this is basically what free play / information gathering is for - building towards conflict.
 

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
In short, I think my problem with "moves," differentiated from simply taking a generic action that is instead defined by character development and design, is that they are a strong element of specificity in an otherwise uniformly abstracted play environment. From a design perspective, I think you need to have a damn good reason for doing that, and PbtA has never convinced me of its reasons. For that matter, neither has D&D.

The thing is that Blades doesn't really have moves.
You are right that FitD does not contain the "move" concept from a player perspective, and not from a GM perspective either, at least not in a strictly defined sense, although the GM's available actions are well-circumscribed by the requirements of the setting and campaign in a similar fashion, which is more to what I was referring. In any case, it was not a further complaint -- it helped me better visualize a bridge between D&D and this style of game.

The AW moves aren't intended to limit you
D&D4's power lists weren't really intended to limit the player either, but they do in practice, because when you give a human (even a very smart, creative human) a list, they follow the list. It's possible to break that habit (in any context), but it takes practice. I know that fans of PbtA either don't have this problem or don't care; if they did they would not be fans.

Bend bars/lift gates in AD&D would be effectively a move (with far less detail) - it's something focused on in a way that makes it more inspiring.
And it's gone, and good riddance. I don't mean to be flip; I agree with what you are saying. Conceptually, BB/LG had an outsized relevance to original D&D play, where the setting was a town next to a buried ruin, and direct comparisons can be made to that style of play and the PbtA limited-setting model (Dungeon World being the most obvious example).

But by AD&D's time, the books even explain that it is a catch all for feats of strength, and at that point why have a specific "move" at all when you've already got a Strength ability score? There are echoes of this idea in the Athletics skill in D&D5, in the sense that players understandably seem to want to add proficiency to every Strength check, but the proficiency specifically only impacts climbing, jumping, and swimming. Why is Strength different for boulderers, long jumpers, and swimmers, and for that matter why does being a boulderer or swimmer also make you a better long jumper?

And AW is built round the rhythm of freeform and doesn't feel intrusive if you're used to nothing or freeform. But it really does if you're too used to D&D with its own rhythms.
It's not a question of 'too used to,' it's a question of preference.

Am I correct in understanding that you dislike a turn based TTRPG? I am curious to know what alternatives there would be.
I'm afraid I don't understand how you got to this conclusion from what I wrote, and I'm further confused by the fact that my understanding of PbtA is that it is not turn based, at least not in the sense that D&D is. Or do you mean sequential? Both games seem to me to be sequential, but only D&D feels turn based.

When you say turn-based, I think of D&D's encounter initiative order and player-defined actions and rolls, which tends to permeate much D&D play informally, even outside of combat (at least in my experience):
  1. DM describes scenario
  2. Player describes action, rolls if necessary, and describes result
  3. DM integrates outcome of result into scenario and adjudicates NPC actions, rolling if necessary
  4. Next player describes action...
When I say sequential, I mean PbtA's 'flow,' for lack of a better word:
  1. GM describes scenario
  2. Player describes action
  3. GM defines action as a move or series of moves
  4. Player rolls if necessary
  5. GM describes outcomes and integrates them into scenario
  6. Player (maybe a different player, maybe the same player) describes action...
This flow still alternates between GM and player, I suppose, but it doesn't feel turn-based, to me, because there's no "NPC turn" or expectation that another player will have a chance to act before the first player can act again. There's also no direct correlation between actions and rolls, as there is an additional GM step that determines that correlation. All of the actions are player defined, and all of the rolls are GM defined, and the scenario is modified by negotiated agreement.

I think what I "dislike" isn't either of these flows, necessarily, but rather a game in which a player's or GM's actions are defined by the system, and not exclusively by either the character or scenario, respectively.
 

niklinna

satisfied?
In short, I think my problem with "moves," differentiated from simply taking a generic action that is instead defined by character development and design, is that they are a strong element of specificity in an otherwise uniformly abstracted play environment. From a design perspective, I think you need to have a damn good reason for doing that, and PbtA has never convinced me of its reasons. For that matter, neither has D&D.


You are right that FitD does not contain the "move" concept from a player perspective, and not from a GM perspective either, at least not in a strictly defined sense, although the GM's available actions are well-circumscribed by the requirements of the setting and campaign in a similar fashion, which is more to what I was referring. In any case, it was not a further complaint -- it helped me better visualize a bridge between D&D and this style of game.


D&D4's power lists weren't really intended to limit the player either, but they do in practice, because when you give a human (even a very smart, creative human) a list, they follow the list. It's possible to break that habit (in any context), but it takes practice. I know that fans of PbtA either don't have this problem or don't care; if they did they would not be fans.


And it's gone, and good riddance. I don't mean to be flip; I agree with what you are saying. Conceptually, BB/LG had an outsized relevance to original D&D play, where the setting was a town next to a buried ruin, and direct comparisons can be made to that style of play and the PbtA limited-setting model (Dungeon World being the most obvious example).

But by AD&D's time, the books even explain that it is a catch all for feats of strength, and at that point why have a specific "move" at all when you've already got a Strength ability score? There are echoes of this idea in the Athletics skill in D&D5, in the sense that players understandably seem to want to add proficiency to every Strength check, but the proficiency specifically only impacts climbing, jumping, and swimming. Why is Strength different for boulderers, long jumpers, and swimmers, and for that matter why does being a boulderer or swimmer also make you a better long jumper?


It's not a question of 'too used to,' it's a question of preference.


I'm afraid I don't understand how you got to this conclusion from what I wrote, and I'm further confused by the fact that my understanding of PbtA is that it is not turn based, at least not in the sense that D&D is. Or do you mean sequential? Both games seem to me to be sequential, but only D&D feels turn based.

When you say turn-based, I think of D&D's encounter initiative order and player-defined actions and rolls, which tends to permeate much D&D play informally, even outside of combat (at least in my experience):
  1. DM describes scenario
  2. Player describes action, rolls if necessary, and describes result
  3. DM integrates outcome of result into scenario and adjudicates NPC actions, rolling if necessary
  4. Next player describes action...
When I say sequential, I mean PbtA's 'flow,' for lack of a better word:
  1. GM describes scenario
  2. Player describes action
  3. GM defines action as a move or series of moves
  4. Player rolls if necessary
  5. GM describes outcomes and integrates them into scenario
  6. Player (maybe a different player, maybe the same player) describes action...
This flow still alternates between GM and player, I suppose, but it doesn't feel turn-based, to me, because there's no "NPC turn" or expectation that another player will have a chance to act before the first player can act again. There's also no direct correlation between actions and rolls, as there is an additional GM step that determines that correlation. All of the actions are player defined, and all of the rolls are GM defined, and the scenario is modified by negotiated agreement.

I think what I "dislike" isn't either of these flows, necessarily, but rather a game in which a player's or GM's actions are defined by the system, and not exclusively by either the character or scenario, respectively.
Your post has clarified for me some things that have caused me trouble in a variety of RPGs. I have always chafed at the small menu of actions in D&D combat (any version), outside of which the DMs in my experience have either refused the option or had to come up with some ad-hoc method of resolution. On the other hand, sometimes while playing Blades in the Dark I'm at a bit of a loss for what to do with the wide-open freedom! And then the GM or another players tosses out some ideas it shuts down my own creativity (which admittedly isn't always running at speed). Torg Eternity, another game I'm currently playing (and recently GMing), has similar issues but a few options for fudging with them, if not always satisfactorily. (Incidentally, in Torg Eternity, action is done in rounds, but turns are per side, so the PCs can go in whatever order they like amongst themselves, but they all get just one turn, barring certain special abilities and cards. On their turn, however, they can take as many actions as they like, but with an accumulating -2 penalty for each extra action. This is one of the options for fudging that works well.)
 

ThorinTeague

Creative/Father/Professor
I'm afraid I don't understand how you got to this conclusion from what I wrote, and I'm further confused by the fact that my understanding of PbtA is that it is not turn based, at least not in the sense that D&D is. Or do you mean sequential? Both games seem to me to be sequential, but only D&D feels turn based.
Actually, what you posted above this answered my question.
 

In short, I think my problem with "moves," [...] is that they are a strong element of specificity in an otherwise uniformly abstracted play environment. From a design perspective, I think you need to have a damn good reason for doing that, and PbtA has never convinced me of its reasons.
The reason is triggering NOT TO BE ***** WITH for my Gunlugger in Apocalypse World. Oh man I love it! 😁

But more serious, the Moves raison d'être are twofold: genre-emulation and shared narration. They guarantee the game will always 1) be about what's on the tin, instead of say, selling itself as personal horror but end up being about supers action; and 2) have everybody contribute equally to the fiction (GM included) instead of giving the privilege to only one participant.

Those goals arose from the storygaming movement and their reaction to a specific gaming culture that was prevalent in the 90s (of which Vampire the Masquerade was probably the most popular representative). If one never saw those problems, or came up with their own solutions for them, I can see how it shouldn't cause much fuss and even feel undesirable (as seems to be your case). But for those who felt those problems, PbtA really fits like a glove.
 
Last edited:

pemerton

Legend
the idea of a game limiting what a PC can actually do by simply not having a defined "action" for that action kept me away from PbtA for years.
A player in AW can declare whatever action they like for their PC (within the limits of genre and fiction). And the rulebook is crystal clear on how such declarations are to be resolved.

EDIT:
The basic move sets in Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World tell you what sort of situations are supposed to be sources of tension, where the conflict space lays within the game. This can be extended through custom moves. Regardless there will be all sorts of actions most characters will take that will help to build towards conflicts.
Yep, this.

Here's a long post I recently wrote on exactly this point:
there is nothing improper about an Apocalypse World player declaring an action for their PC that doesn't trigger a player-side move.

Here are the triggers for the basic player-side moves in Apocalypse World: doing something under fire, or digging in to endure fire; going aggro on someone; trying to seize something by force; trying to seduce or manipulate someone, using leverage (a threat, promise, etc); reading a charged situation; reading a person in a charged interaction; opening your brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom.

It's fairly obvious that there is a range of things - in practical terms, an infinite range - that a person in Apocalypse World might do that does not fall under any of those descriptions. And not just stuff like pulling on their socks and tying their shoe laces in the morning. They might open a door to see what's behind it; they might look at the fuel gauge of their car; they might ask the hardholder if she will lend them a gun and ammunition; they might try and open a tin of peaches to share with a friend.

As per my quote not too far upthread (from p 109 of the rulebook),

Apocalypse World divvies the conversation up in a strict and pretty traditional way. The players’ job is to say what their characters say and undertake to do, first and exclusively; to say what their characters think, feel and remember, also exclusively; and to answer your questions about their characters’ lives and surroundings. Your job as MC [=GM] is to say everything else: everything about the world, and what everyone in the whole damned world says and does except the players’ characters.​

So when the player says "I pull out my knife and open the tin of peaches", it is the GM's job to say what happens. How does the GM do that? The GM makes a move, in accordance with the principles and the agenda. To quote from pp 108-9,

AGENDA
• Make Apocalypse World seem real.
• Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.
• Play to find out what happens.

Everything you say, you should do it to accomplish these three, and no other. . . .

ALWAYS SAY
• What the principles demand (as follow).
• What the rules demand.
• What your prep demands.
• What honesty demands.

Here are the principles - I'm quoting from p 110, but am grouping them together by the agenda item they tend to support:

• Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
• Name everyone, make everyone human.
• Make your move, but misdirect.
• Make your move, but never speak its name.
• Think offscreen too.​

"Misdirection" here is clearly explained (pp 110-1):

the real reason why you choose a move exists in the real world. Somebody has her character go someplace new, somebody misses a roll, somebody hits a roll that calls for you to answer, everybody’s looking to you to say something, so you choose a move to make. Real-world reasons. However, misdirect: pretend that you’re making your move for reasons entirely within the game’s fiction instead.​

This ensures (i) that a move always follows from the fiction, and (ii) together with the other principles, it makes Apocalypse World seem real.

More principles:

• Barf forth apocalyptica.
• Look through crosshairs.
• Respond with [trouble] and intermittent rewards.
• Be a fan of the players’ characters.​

These principles, when followed, ensure that the character's lives are not boring.

Finally, there are these two principles:

• Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
• Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.​

These are important means of playing to find out what happens.

Note that the prep that is referred to is not map-and-key. It begins during and continues after the first session, as per pp 130, 132 and 136:

Fill up your 1st session worksheet. List the players’ characters in the center circle. Think of the space around them as a map,
but with scarcity and lack instead of cardinal directions. As you name NPCs, place them on the map around the PCs, according to the fundamental scarcity that makes them a threat to the PCs. . . .

Listing each threat’s available resources will give you insight into who they are, what they need, and what they can do to get it. It’s especially useful to give some threats resources that the PCs need but don’t have. Now go back over it all. Pull it into its pieces. Solidify them into threats, following the rules [for fronts] . . .

Take these solid threats and build them up into fronts. . . .

A front has some apparently mechanical components, but it’s fundamentally conceptual, not mechanical. The purpose of your prep is to give you interesting things to say. As MC you’re going to be playing your fronts, playing your threats, but that doesn’t mean anything mechanical. It means saying what they do. It means offering opportunities to the players to have their characters do interesting things, and it means responding in interesting ways to what the players have their characters do.​

So when the player says (as their PC) "I pull out my knife and open the tin of peaches", the GM doesn't decide what happens by consulting a random-tin-contents chart (as might be the case in, say Gamma World or even Twilight 2000). Nor does the GM consult any notes about what are in the tin. Nor does the GM call for a dice roll from the player (as might happen in, say, Cyberspace) with a chance of blunting the knife or spilling the contents.

The GM chooses a move that will best conform to the principles and agenda I've set out above. Suppose that the PC in a place that the GM, building out threats and fronts from the play of the first session, has established as the home of a gang of NPCs led by a "warlord" (see p 138). Perhaps, then, the GM decides to have the warlord "Make a show of force" (p 138) and so (misdirecting, and never speaking the name of their move) tells the player "You open the tin. As you start to eat, you hear a gun shot and a bullet ricochets off the rock next to you. What do you do?" This makes the character's life not boring. It honours prep, and involves thinking offscreen (what does the gang think about interlopers with nice peaches!?). It certainly is responding with "trouble" (Vincent Baker uses a different noun starting with "f" and ending with "ery"). And it puts the PC in a spot (a non-threat-specific GM move: pp 116, 119).

Suppose, rather, that the PC is at home. And suppose that the GM regards this as something of an opportunity - it's already established that things are afoot in the neighbourhood! - and so decides to make a slightly harder move. Then maybe the GM responds "As you're opening the tin, there's a sudden pounding on your door. You look up, and in the process nearly nick yourself with your knife. Do you keep hold of the can - in which case take 1 harm (ap) as the knife cuts your hand. Or do you spill the contents as you drop what you're holding?" The GM, here, is making the character's life not boring. And looking through crosshairs (at the peaches, and at the character). And - while misdirecting and not speaking the name of their move - is announcing off-screen badness (ie the pounding on the door) and telling the possible consequences (of keeping hold of the tin) and asking.

In either case the player says something about what their PC does. In the first case, it seems there's a good chance it will involve acting under fire. But maybe the player has their character read the situation first? In the second case that would also be an option. But maybe the player just says "F*** it! I open the door" - and that doesn't trigger a player-side move, and so now the GM makes another move, applying the same methodology to work out what that move should be.

The methodology is completely different from map-and-key, or from anything found in any D&D module or rulebook that I know of. (Including 4e D&D.)

Here's another way to look at it:

When is a conflict resolved? When the situation in which it arises is changed irrevocably. What do we call an irrevocable change in the situation, in AW? That's a hard move. So what the play procedure of AW is designed to do is to produce rising action - more GM soft moves, introducing more tension and more complication - until the situation changes irrevocably: either the player succeeds on a player-side move and makes an irrevocable change (someone agrees to do what the PC wants, or is removed by threat or force from the PC's way, or the PC gets out of the difficult situation); or the GM is authorised to make a hard move, and declares an irrevocable change in the situation.

The GM has authority over the pacing of this, by choosing what soft moves to make, and the ways in which they step up the pressure in the situation. The player has authority over it, too, by choosing what to say when the GM asks 'What do you do?", which includes choosing whether to declare an action that will enliven a player-side move and thus create the possibility of resolution one way or another.

If the player - as in my warehouse example, and my peaches example - chooses not to make a player-side move, that is not "improper" or degenerate in any fashion. It is, among other things, a choice to prolong the rising action. When the GM responds with (say) "A guard comes up to you to ask you your business" that's not "illegitimate" either <snippage>. That is the GM doing their job, of stepping up the pressure in the situation.

The mark of a good PbtA game - and AW is a good PbtA game - is that the elements of the playbooks, the way the first session works, the outlines for fronts and threats, and the design of the player-side moves, all combine to mean that sooner or later a player will make a player-side move and hence will initiate the process of resolving the conflict. This is why, when Vincent Baker says "there are no status quos in Apocalypse World" (pp 112, 114, 125, 228) he is not giving an instruction to the GM (or the players) - rather, he is observing what will happen if the game is played as the rulebook actually sets it out.
 
Last edited:

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top