How much power does the GM have in Powered by the Apocalypse games?

PbtA games are often considered to be player-driven. My own experiences have ranged from somewhat GM-driven to heavily GM-driven, usually closer to Shadowrun than Shock. I'd like to see what you think, however. If you think I'm looking at this in a wrong way, I want to know that, too.

Games I've played: Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Night Witches, The Sprawl, Dungeon World.
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  • We've discussed this elsewhere, but for what it's worth, I personally think that "player-driven" only makes sense in this kind of context when compared to other GMed games. Of course a GMless story-creation game like Shock is going to be much, much less GM-driven than a game that actually has a GM.

    Apocalypse World itself (can't really say for the various variations) is about as player-driven as games like TSoY or Sorcerer or, you know, pretty much any other GMed games out there. I would in fact be intrigued by some counter-examples of games that have a GM yet are somehow, in some sense, more "player-driven" than Apocalypse World and such are. Is there a way to be more player-driven than a game where the player creates the character they want, and they get to determine what the character's story is about, and they get to decide how they react to adversity on the way?

    Then again, I do not disagree if you'll say that there are PbtA games out there that are notably traditional, simulationistic, GM-driven, or whatever other adjective we might pick to contrast with whatever it is that AW itself is. There's a bit of a range in what those games do, the mechanical framework is so loose that nothing in particular keeps the games "on message" in this regard. You want to make a GM-driven game with those mechanics, you can surely do it without any difficulty. I've only skimmed a few of them, but even e.g. Dungeon World (one of the few I've read cover to cover) is practically in a different county compared to AW.
  • I agree with Eero that to a certain extent you can't have a game with an actual GM (Who basically controls EVERYTHING that is not the PCs) that isn't going to give that player more ability to drive play than the others - at least, relative to a GMless game where all players are functionally equal.

    But on the other hand, we just had a thread about how the GM isn't supposed to really prepare much of anything for an AW game, so compared to a lot of games, the level of GM "driving" is quite low.
  • I find AW to be about exactly as "player-driven" as AD&D, with the only exception being that I'm forbidden from making up anything prior to the first session. Of course, it might just be that I've always been a highly flexible and improvisational GM.

  • I think PbtA is waaaay too broad to place it on a single point on this spectrum. I think it runs the gamut, from Monsterhearts (without the Chosen, where the PCs are each other's antagonists), all the way to heavily GM-driven play styles such as The Regiment or Dungeon World with a prepared scenario.

    Even then, I think this has a lot to do with play style rather than the game itself. You can play Dungeon World as a just-in-time, psychodramatic sandbox, or you can put the players in Tomb of Horrors. I've played con games of AW where the GM was escalating fronts so aggressively that the players spent most of their time reacting.
  • edited October 2017
    I think In general PbtA games have formalized some rules that make them a bit more player-driven than most of the trad. GMed games, but it depends on how they're played, the particular game, etc.—they're much closer to traditional games then to Shock:. I do think there is a space for game designs to go further in the collaborative story game direction, where one ends up more in the middle.

    For example, I have a game idea I'm working on that is kind of a collaborative story game and PbtA/Fate RPG hybrid. Think of something akin to the probative questions that are part of PbtA games; asking a series of leading questions that eventually gets into world-building from the perspective of the thoughts and senses of the given PC. I also add a technique, which I call "passing the hot potato," which is kind of how the GM in Lady Blackbird asks questions for the PCs to fill in.

    Also, during conflict resolution the PC gets to describe everything that happens narrativly if the role is a positive outcome, such as: "yes, and," "yes" and the yes part of "yes, but"...the GM can of course veto too big of an ask, also the GM describes negative outcomes. So an example of the "yes, but" might be: you are chased by a horde of zombies and are trying to close and lock a door to keep them out; the PC discribes the "yes" is that the door is tightly closed and locked, the GM discribes "but" is that as you look around the room you realize that a member of your party is missing. The PC can discribe much more of the narrative than in the example I gave—it works similar to the Pool. I haven't discribed it well or given the best examples, but hopefully you get the jist. These type of games would obviously have a more improvish nature that trad. RPGs and would demand more from the players, but not as much as a collaborative story game.

    Anyway, I thought I would bring it up because I'm interested in bringing together the collaborative storytelling games with more trad. games in which you're playing mostly from a character's POV; I want to see the interesting spaces that can be carved out in the middle. Really, I'm interested to see if you can largely keep that character's POV feel while still contributing to the storytelling in a wider sense and what the best techniques to do so are. Of course, this character's POV stuff is subjective.
  • PbtA games:

    * Have a basic GMed structure. This means that a GM who wants to "run the show" can, to a large extent. Notably, I once played AW with a GM like this and it felt VERY traditional.

    * However, there is a strong culture of play growing around these games which is all about the GM ceding power to the players. (It starts with the no orep for the first session, asking provocative questions, and so forth.)

    Groups that do this (in my limited experience, most groups did) create a much more collaborative form of gaming. Often, more than half of what's going on in play is based in some way on players' ideas.

    * The rules have all kinds of spots - some obvious and some very subtle - where they cede the GM's power to the players. This really adds up over the long-term!

    Some of this is just strong-arm conflict resolution (for instance, with the advanced "seduce/manipulate" move a player can just declare an NPC is now an ally, and that's binding).

    Some of it is in the playbooks (the Hardholder gets to decide a lot about the setting, the Quarantine ends up deciding the nature of the apocalypse to a large extent, the Skinner can decide which NPCs are in love with him/her, and so forth).

    * Overall, it's still a traditional RPG frame, but with a group that buys into all this stuff and embraces it, the effect is subtle but powerful.

    By the book, the players dictate or decide much of "what kind of setting is this?", "what happened here?", "what are the important themes?", and so forth. Then they have various tools for pushing those further in play.

    However, that's not strictly enforced, and each group can find a different balance of "empowerment". (As a simple example, consider: how often does the MC ask questions? That's not regulated, but it matters a lot.)

    The structure of the rules will wreck a lot of stock "traditional" play. If you were to try to run a pre-written adventure, for instance, some of the playbooks would conflict with the ideas. Then some of their moves would mess up the "storyline" - read a person means no NPC can lie to them, seduce/manipulate can get the NPC to do something different... you cannot create an enemy they can't fight, and so forth.

  • First, it's not about power.
    In my opinion there exists only two meaningful degrees of GM power:
    - the GM has de facto power over the rules (Trad designs)
    - the GM does not have power over the rules (any other rpg in existence)

    By this I don't mean hacks and house rules that the whole table agrees to use.
    I mean games that put the GM in a position where it is ok, or even expected, for them to use or not use all the other game mechanics by whim, on a moment by moment basis. Here the GM is the game with more or less inspiration from whatever is written on a book somewhere.

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    Second, it's not about power :)
    Looking at the original AW the GM has pretty much the classic powers: authority on the world and all its npcs and events, arbitration rights, ample space to create anything surrounding the PCs both in terms of space and time, etc. There are procedures regulating how the GM can mess with the PCs, but withing those rules the GM has ample latitude to act as they see fit.

    What makes the game more player driven than others is that all this structure helps and encourages the GM to play in a mostly "reactive" way, using their own creativity to offer answers and fill the gaps, rather than coming up with their thing to be unloaded (with minimal adjustments) on the Players.It doesn't twist the GM's arm about it, but it creates a situation where doing so is much easier than doing otherwise.

    So, as you see, the GM powers are not really reduces. They are just modulated on a specific frequency, towards a specific end. Simply, the events in the game are more driven by Player choices and actions than by GM prep and decisions; but the GM still has plenty of stuff to do!

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    How much player driven are PbtA games in general... is a different matter.

    I consider the original AW played by the book as pretty player-driven.
    The game procedures are clear enough, and if the Players themselves know the system, it gets even tighter and more performing, although having the Players keep the GM in check on the rules can still feel awkward and cause social friction.
    (unless the GM openly asks for this kind of facilitation and support)

    Fate Core, with all its merits, is much less efficient in this regard, as it offers tools that could be used to have a player driven game, but in the end if you don't use them it's all the same :P
    In AW at least the system puts up a small modicum of fight if you misuse it.
    (I mean, if you really go off the rails the system will break, as it should, but unfortunately there is a non trivial amount of room for error)

    And this is my personal problem with AW: there is enough ambiguity, grey areas and wiggle space that GMs can easily get things wrong without noticing it, or without understanding how or why their games suffer. Leading to games that vary a lot in terms of quality (as measured by stuff like the events of play being more or less tight, relevant, engaging, meaningful, well paced, etc).

    Then AW descendants come along, and you can easily see how the vast majority of them moves away (maybe unwittingly?) from all that made AW actually great and back towards an even muddier, less clear, less efficient game where a damn lot of stuff depends (again!) on the personal graces of "a good GM". Anyone can measure this by looking at the many features of the original AW and comparing them with the same features in other PbtA games, noticing how less marked such features are:
    - less GM prep
    - less GM fatigue during active play
    - tight rhythm
    - bang driven action (which is another way to say Player Driven)
    - fiction first approach
    - etc

    Of course not all PbtA games are directly comparable. Some designs are radically different and it would be like comparing apples and oranges. But in most cases that's not the case.

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    So yeah. In my opinion AW is pretty player driven. Not as much as a gmLess game. But still more than most other PbtA games out there. Definitely more than Fate. And light years more than any Trad game.
  • edited October 2017
    In most PbtA games, I think the GM can wield as much power as a trad GM, but if they abide by the following features they probably won't:
    - move outcome lists that hand the players something they want on a good roll
    - hard moves that are used for bad rolls rather than just whenever
    - soft moves that give the GM something light-handed to do and put it back to the players to respond
    - front clocks that pace the activity of the GM's cool antagonists rather than having them just steal the show off the bat
    - the instruction to be a fan of the characters
  • I was recently accused of metagaming as a GM during a Dungeon World game.
    Frankly, I was shocked. From my perspective, the GM is as beholden to her moves as any player; and although we have more opportunities to describe the world & its setting, I had always thought of it as an equal partnership.
    Of course, no one is checking my moves, so there's that.
  • I was recently accused of metagaming as a GM during a Dungeon World game.
    I'm trying to imagine what that would even be, that's hilarious.
  • I consider AW more GM-driven than player-driven. The simple test I use is: When there's a lull in the action, who kicks the game back into motion, the GM or the players? In AW it's stated quite explicitly: "Whenever there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to you to say something, choose one of these things [GM moves] and say it".

    Of course AW is more more player-driven in this spectrum than traditional games, but I also consider Solar System and Burning Wheel more player-driven than AW. In both of those players can:

    1) write flags that the GM should prepare for
    2) make those flags active, i.e. the GM can just ask "what do you do" when there's a lull in the action and the players can act towards their stated goals.

    AW's first session procedure does this flag catching on the fly, but after that the situation develops organically and the GM has more authority to choose which kinds of fronts to create. The fronts then push the action and force the PCs to act. The GM can, of course, keep asking similar flag catching questions later on, but as Paul said, it's not enforced.

    Clearly these are shades of gray, but in my experience these shades make a difference in the play experience.
  • Good analysis, Glowie! I agree with you.
  • edited October 2017
    I agree PbtA games can be reasonably player-driven if the GM lets them to be. The problem with my PbtA experiences is that GMs, maybe unconsciously, tend to make the games all about their plot. Mission/adventure-based PbtA games may be especially vulnerable, because they're practically geared for GM illusionism.

    It might be it's just much easier to make a democratic GMless game than a game with a weak GM.
  • I've had people yell at me for hinting at doing prep for an AW game -- the rules don't say it's a no-prep game but people take it that way.
  • The rules say that the 1st session is no prep ... and then you are openly instructed to DO prep between each new session and the next. But the game also tells you how. Or at least, AW does, and it is pretty effective too. If you play by the book, doing illusionism takes both great GM effort and very oblivious Players.

    And that's the problem.
    AW is like tha, but the other PbtA games?

    The more time passes, the more I see PbtA games lose all the good things that AW did, sliding back into Trad habits because of, in the end, a lacking design.
    I mean, this crazy idea got around that the PbtA structure is good for a "quick reskin"... you "just" come up with new moves, new playbooks, and by magic you have a brand new game, right? :astonished:

    But it's not as easy as it sounds. It never works like this.
    The PbtA structure is one of the most design-heavy things I have ever seen... either you play it as is, with just a superficial change of colour laid on exactly the original mechanics, or you are in for a LOT of design work.
    And it's often easy to spot when the designer just doesn't get how the AW system works, what the point of its parts is. In my opinion it is quite rare for a PbtA game to show actual design worth under the skin deep patina of a fresh new setting idea.
    And then someone else builds their own game from this imperfect copy.
    And someone else later builds their own game from the copy of the copy.

    Someone on G+ posted a sheet that shows how PbtA games could be split by generation, and there are like 3 or 4 generations already.
    To my eye, again with exceptions, the newest generations have quite unclear procedures, the GM needs to do lots of prep work, sometimes even for the 1st session, moves don't "move" the fiction anymore, there is an increasing amount of constant negotiation at the table or, in contrast, the GM is directly and officially appointed as the final arbiter for the many many judgement calls that the fuzzy procedures end up requiring. This in turn, obviously, makes the game only as Player-driven as the GM wants / knows how to make it.

    Personally I don't mind this explosion of PbtA games.
    I'm a firm believer in the fact that more production is better than less production, as ideas flow and here and there gems can be found :smile:
    But I wouldn't mind seeing a (starker, as I optimistically believe there is already) evolution of things, a movement forward instead of backwards, a progressive raise in the bar of these... PbtA Heartbreakers?
  • edited October 2017
    I've had people yell at me for hinting at doing prep for an AW game -- the rules don't say it's a no-prep game but people take it that way.
    That's a common misconception, unfortunately. If you go to the G+ community for DW you'll find an insane amount of people who think that "play to find out what happens" means "no prep allowed", when they're completely different things. This stems, me thinks, from the various rulebooks not making the distinction more obvious/in-your-face (although it's there) and from Adam Koebel seemingly having a big dislike for prep and apparently preferring mostly to improvise everything on the go, with everyone contributing to the mix. This is also reflected in the design philosophy for most supplements for DW, like Perilous Wilds, which although well designed, I have a dislike for (e.g. I have a strong dislike for improvised dungeons). There comes a point for me personally where the "everyone contributes to the salad" approach tends to produce mostly chicken food.
  • I guess it depends on how you define power. I'm running Monsterhearts 1.5, and doing my level best not to prep, and indeed, I have NO idea how the final session will end.

    But, I come up with things that will happen. Well, will very likely happen. E.g., the Werewolf is raised-by-wolves and flees to the woods to be with them without bothering to drop a hat. Okay, so I came up with a man living in the woods who was killing and skinning wolves. I had no idea who he was or what he was doing at that point, and when I had him shooting at the wolves to protect the Werewolf (as he saw a girl in danger from the wolves), all of that was playing as we played, not prepping.

    And the Werewolf killed him and ate part of him.
    And the Queen helped clean up the mess, deciding that the story would be that the wolves killed and ate him.

    And between sessions, I decided that the school nurse (on a first name basis with the Werewolf) was this guy's niece and would be all "kill the wolves".

    And after that next session ended, I looked at what had happened, what the nurse now knew, and decided that she'd poisoned the wolf mother. This happened offstage, the dying wolf coming into the scene, and setting the Werewolf on the path of vengeance.

    As far as I understand it, I followed the rules. There were enough 6-s for me to make that as a Hard move. I had established this was the school nurse who knew enough to know how to leave poison out for wolves, who wanted to kill the wolves. This did not come out of nowhere.
    As far as I understand it, in Sorcerer terms, I introduced a Bang and then backed the fuck off to let the players decide what would happen.

    But I made that choice. I used GM power.

    Or look at combat. Say the Werewolf gets into a fight with an NPC who's in the Queen's gang. I don't roll the dice ever. When the Werewolf rolls the dice, we read the Lashing Out move and say what this means, following the principles of Monsterhearts.

    But, there are points in a combat where I act or react. I do not roll dice. I decide what happens, and -- barring objections from the players, which is an important caveat -- what I decide happens. What the hell is power if not that?

    Or say the Witch has managed to tick off an NPC, not necessarily wanting to, the player not necessarily wanting to, but again, not objecting. And say this NPC is a physically capable bully, while the Witch is not.

    I say that the bully accosts the Witch and hits him, doing, say, 1 harm.
    I say that the Queen's gang member punches the Werewolf, doing 1 harm.
    Or I decide one of these has a gun, doing more than 1 harm.

    I'm presumably following the rules, the principles, the agendas. I've established the existence of this gun before firing it. I've established the bully is pissed off at the Witch and the kind of person who will fire that gun. I am, I hope, running a safe, sane, consensual game where the players WILL call me on my shit.

    But again, what is this if not using power? And what is power if it isn't this?

    This isn't a rhetorical question. I'm not sure how folks are defining "power", and whether we're talking something that is de facto bad or something that cannot exist if the folks on the receiving end consent, whether we're talking something that, like electricity, can be used for good or ill, but is not intrinsically good or bad, or whether we're talking about something else altogether.
  • @Hasimir , what PbtA games got it right in your opinion? Could you cite some of them?

    And I'm with Eero here: PbtA can only be considered player-driven in comparison to other games in it's niche, that is, GMed or trad games.
  • I guess it depends on how you define power. I'm running Monsterhearts 1.5, and doing my level best not to prep, and indeed, I have NO idea how the final session will end.
    Just for clarification: you mean that you are doing your level best not to script the story/railroad or not to prep in general? This is what I was talking about in my previous post. They are two different things that keep getting conflated (I don't think that's your case, though). You can prep loads of background material (locations, NPC motivations, what-have-you) and still have no "story script"/railroading/any idea whatsoever what's gonna happen from the moment the game starts.
  • edited October 2017
    Yeah, if you're coming from a perspective of collaborative freeform (e.g. fiasco), PbtA is very traditional.

    However, if your persecptive is heavy "trad play", it's got some things going for it.

    PbtA (at least the "core" games and AW itself; I have yet to see a descendant which has really clear directions for play - but I'm unfamiliar with most) is basically:

    Traditional, GMed roleplaying, but with:

    * some player-empowering rules and procedures (e.g. some moves give players decision-making power over important aspects of the setting),
    * clear player-empowering principles and agenda for the MC (arguably the most important but also the easiest thing to ignore), and
    * a culture of no-prep play and collaborative practices (largely because of AW's "first session" advice, I'd imagine).

    It's still a GMed RPG. However, you will not see this:

    "Ok, I'm the GM. I've created a world you can read about in this binder. You will make 3rd level characters (but no clerics or demihumans, those don't exist in my setting). You will be hired by an Important NPC to find the Tiered Orb. Also, when you return the Orb, you will be betrayed by him and then have to find the Blue Sword to defeat him in a climactic scene on the citadel stairs and one of you will die, but I'm not going to tell you that just yet."

    It's a different dynamic and a different culture of play.

    In games I've seen, players tend to have a lot to say about the nature of the setting, the themes in play, the general focus of play, and so on.
  • Lol that example XD
  • That example is nothing like any trad campaign I ever took part in (my friends and I were much more interested in sandbox play), but it is a very common characterization of trad campaigns by people who I suppose imagine themselves as detractors. In fact, the open-ended AD&D campaigns of my youth played out very much like AW campaigns, except that the world in general was GM-created (this is really the only main point of departure). The direction of play was determined by the players, all options in the canonical books were considered available, and NPC actions were improvised based on their drives and interests, or on random die rolls. In runtime, the GM's role had more to do with reacting realistically than with plotting deterministically.

    For my money, this is why so many people find AW to be not very different from trad games: Vincent's principles merely elucidated and codified all the things we already did.

  • @Hasimir , what PbtA games got it right in your opinion? Could you cite some of them?
    What follows are all very much PERSONAL OPINIONS on games I have played.
    But since you ask...

    Unfortunately all PbtA games suffer from the same fundamental problems I mentioned earlier. The thing is, some are in better shape than others, but none that I know of are exempt.

    In my opinion the original Apocalypse World and now its 2nd edition offer the cleaner and tighter rules. Even though, especially in the 1st edition, the "cool writing style" ended up being a big obstacle to understanding some portions of the text for a lot of people.
    But that's my golden standard for PbtA comparison.

    Monsterhearts (1st edition... I have not yet read/played the 2nd edition) is also good and doesn't fall too far from the tree. Although it completely fucks up the GM prep part, because reasons.

    Dungeon World is not terrible, it does a good job most of the time, but it further reduces the "quality" (for lack of a better word, please forgive me) in respect to AW or MH.
    What I mean is, a lot of important details get less polish and attention, or are intentionally made less important because of the D&D-nostalgia factor.
    Not surprisingly, all these changes go in the direction of making the game procedures less clear, less unambiguous, less tight and supportive ... which means that the GM has again much more room for error, and much more pressure to be the one to make things right.
    Still nothing even remotely comparable to a Trad game, but definitely a few steps closer to it that AW.

    And this is it for me.
    Most other PbtA focus 99% on designing Moves and new sub-systems that fit and support their chosen setting and color, giving for granted the basic underlying structure, thus introducing more and more sloppiness and errors and unexplained elements.

    Sagas of the Icelanders, as I remember it, should be on the same good level as MH.

    But then Monster of the Week takes DW and further pushes it towards the land of the Trads :P
    Same does The Sprawl.
    Same does Urban Shadows.

    Same does, unfortunately, also The Veil, which is a shame because the game is full of neat and interesting ideas, but the rules are SO badly written and unclear that the gameplay was truly hindered... somehow many moves and procedures felt very inspiring to read, but when applied in actual play they feel awkward to use.

    Then comes along Undying and it manages to be the most progressive and the most regressive PbtA ever, at the same time. It's diceLess and it's focused on PvP and politics... but it is also VERY demanding on the GM, requires a ton of prep, asks the GM to make a LOT of game defining choices, and requires the GM to make a lot of critical decisions on the fly, some by design, some because of muddiness and grey areas.
    And I'm with Eero here: PbtA can only be considered player-driven in comparison to other games in it's niche, that is, GMed or trad games.
    For my money, this is why so many people find AW to be not very different from trad games: Vincent's principles merely elucidated and codified all the things we already did.
    I agree, on both accounts.

    "Ok, I'm the GM. I've created a world you can read about in this binder. You will make 3rd level characters (but no clerics or demihumans, those don't exist in my setting). You will be hired by an Important NPC to find the Tiered Orb. Also, when you return the Orb, you will be betrayed by him and then have to find the Blue Sword to defeat him in a climactic scene on the citadel stairs and one of you will die, but I'm not going to tell you that just yet."
    This would not happen at my "good old" table, because we were mostly playing Vampire Masquerade/DarkAges in a sandbox style... all fruit of years of (un)natural player/gm selection.
    But I've had my share of such stuff, and I can testify that Paul's example was and still is both accurate and very common :P
  • That example is nothing like any trad campaign I ever took part in (my friends and I were much more interested in sandbox play), but it is a very common characterization of trad campaigns by people who I suppose imagine themselves as detractors.
    It is also a near-perfect summary of the method and plot advocated in the Dragonlance adventure modules, which one may remember as the flagship franchise of TSR in the mid-80s. Paul's admittedly exaggerating slightly in that he's mixing up the climatic plot-points of the first, third and eight modules. Also, of course demihumans are available in Dragonlance, so I don't know what Paul's on about with that [grin].

    As Paul describes, Apocalypse World is at least less GM-oriented than a game like Dragonlance. It's not a negligible playstyle - many would characterize it as the most popularly advocated one in game texts from mid-80s to the end of the century.
  • Progressive compared to traditional games sounds about right. It'd be cool to have a more democratic PbtA game where you have inspiring playbooks and moves (preferably visible on the sheet, not buried in the book), but isn't so reliant on a good GM.

    @Lisa Padol My starting point about power would be how much the GM is supposed to dictate the fiction vs validate it vs just react to it. I think traditional games have a lot of dictating and validating going on, while the more progressive PbtA games encourage the GM to mostly react to the fiction and let the system validate it. Obviously a very murky subject!
  • It'd be cool to have a more democratic PbtA game where you have inspiring playbooks and moves (preferably visible on the sheet, not buried in the book), but isn't so reliant on a good GM.
    Does Dream Askew qualify? I had a blast playing that one, something close to the 'PbtA with Fiasco style freeform collaboration' ideal.
  • "Ok, I'm the GM. I've created a world you can read about in this binder. You will make 3rd level characters (but no clerics or demihumans, those don't exist in my setting). You will be hired by an Important NPC to find the Tiered Orb. Also, when you return the Orb, you will be betrayed by him and then have to find the Blue Sword to defeat him in a climactic scene on the citadel stairs and one of you will die, but I'm not going to tell you that just yet."
    This is, actually, precisely the sort of games I tried to run in my teens and early twenties - and failed.

    (Didn't Ron or someone else on the Forge had a term of jargon for this "get betrayed by your employer" adventure structure, BTW? I think I've heard this was at some point the most cliché Shadowrun scenario or something.)

    This is also, of course, obviously not the sort of functional "trad" play AW codifies and builds upon. You "sandbox" people in this thread might have experienced that, perhaps (I wouldn't know - I was just the worst GM).
    But what's great about AW as a book is that it actually tries to be instructive! It's not just: "You're the MC, you have nigh-unlimited power, so use it for the greater good, I guess, bye!" It provides concrete directions: what to do, when, and why - to what end. It actually attempts to teach how to do it, with lots of detailed examples and stuff. With role-playing texts, that isn't a given - or even common at all.
  • I guess it depends on how you define power. I'm running Monsterhearts 1.5, and doing my level best not to prep, and indeed, I have NO idea how the final session will end.
    Just for clarification: you mean that you are doing your level best not to script the story/railroad or not to prep in general? This is what I was talking about in my previous post. They are two different things that keep getting conflated (I don't think that's your case, though). You can prep loads of background material (locations, NPC motivations, what-have-you) and still have no "story script"/railroading/any idea whatsoever what's gonna happen from the moment the game starts.
    A little bit of both here, though in general, I mean "not to script the story/railroad". Usually, I do prep between sessions, but the last session we had, I didn't. The next session, mostly not. I mean, I sort of have one bit of prep that occurred to me in the last session, as a reaction to what I know one of the players is thinking his character, the Witch, might do, because it would be an interesting twist on that, but I don't know if it will come up. (NPC motivation/plan)

    Mm, I do need to do one bit of prep, and that is to make sure I've a clear idea what happened last session, as none of us did an immediate post-session summary email.
  • edited October 2017
    Vincent would absolutely agree that his AW book, for many gamers, simply describes and codifies what a good GM does. (He has often said so, in fact.)

    However, the playstyle I described - and not even as a caricature, but exactly like that! - is also very common, and, in some communities, used to be the Only Way to play RPGs. I've both played in and run many games like that!

    It is not at all difficult to find gaming products which teach you to play in exactly this fashion (as Eero mentions, above).
  • edited October 2017
    I find that sad. Like... Creatively hobbled and infantalized. But point taken; I was fortunate to have eluded both that style of module and that style of GMing. Part of it is an age thing.

  • In big part it is the natural result of incoherent game design.

    The GM (alone) is tasked with the goal to deliver this grand story, while the game mechanics do jack shit to help them do it, while the Players are (in many ways) taught to behave like egoist children, which in turn reinforced the role of the GM as a parent/commander/director.

    In this situation, railroading is an effective way to deliver an incredibly difficult result. And still you need years of expertise, practice and the luck to stumble upon the right experiences to become a passable "Good GM".

    What Paul describes is not the only way. But it's by far the easiest, and thus a very very common one.

    I come up with a story I think will be of your liking for some reason, then put you through it, expecting total compliance as a sign of respect for my work and effort, but without telling you any of that because it could otherwise ruin the surprise. All the "bad" things I do, I do for your own good, for the sake of everyone's enjoyment and fun.
  • Incoherent game design in the sense that people have kept trying to use a core of wargame (niche wargame type at that) derived methods to achieve genre emulation results, and continue to do so in mainstream designs.
  • Incoherent game design in the sense that people have kept trying to use a core of wargame (niche wargame type at that) derived methods to achieve genre emulation results, and continue to do so in mainstream designs.
    Exactly.
  • Hasimir,

    That's a fantastic description of roleplaying dynamics as a parent-child metaphor. Lovely!

    Tod,

    I don't know if age is the thing here. This has certainly been around since the 80s, and, I suspect, as Hasimir says, a naturally emergent dynamic.

    I played RPGs for over a decade before I saw any gaming that WASN'T run this way.

    I don't know about the practices of the first decade or so of the hobby. I'd like to hope it was all "hygienic" old-school gaming, but I don't know.
  • edited October 2017
    It's nicer to say "age" than "intelligence" or "artistic intention", that's for sure. :-) But...

    My friends introduced me to white box D&D in 77, and being gifted geeks, we headed straight into designing our own worlds. Worldbuilding was a new artform we wished to explore, and our understanding of the game's view of "story" (existentially emergent, given the paucity of white box, though we later expanded into AD&D) led us to build what people would later call "Simulationist Sandboxes". We were modeling worlds, and that included both the variety and the free will of their inhabitants. This seemed to go without saying. My world was HUGE and would go on developing for ten years. From that moment, any modules I acquired would be mere drop-ins, used to provide a potential destination within an under-detailed region of the worldmap, but since our worlds were so individualistic and our PCs were involved in their own self-driven exploratory sandbox storylines already, there would have been no real reason (or point) in using a railroady plotline even if I did use the module it came from.

    My definition of prep was like architecture: I designed spaces for players to use, but I couldn't possibly foretell what they would actually do in those spaces. My role in runtime was mostly reactive, and mechanically supportive (even when fictionally antagonistic) toward whatever they decided. As in real life, stories formed themselves, in retrospect. And as in real life, there was always some kind of "moral" or "object-lesson" that could be drawn from a post-facto perspective (a fact I find philosophically fascinating).

    So again, I was fortunate to have never run into the stupid kind of game you talk about. And this is why it's easy for me to see AW as comfortably "trad".
    All the "bad" things I do, I do for your own good, for the sake of everyone's enjoyment and fun.
    The goals of enjoyment and fun always need to be defined in ways that suit the medium.

    I gave a number of conference-talks to writers back in the early days of interactive fiction and CD-ROM adventure games, and their biggest problems and fears regarding interactive media had to do with "losing control" of plot. Many writers seemed to have great difficulty seeing the design as an object-oriented network, created in such a way as to permit plot to emerge "organically" (within the functional and heuristic limits of the system and setting), as my D&D experiences (and later, MUD experiences) had taught me to do. Rather than creating lines between significant plot beats, the job of the interactive writer was to create possibility: sets of objects ripe with the potential for dramatic and procedural connection, and the more possibilities the better. But this was not easy for all of them to see, or adapt to. So IMHO, part of the problem is the legacy of that "traditional" or "classical" view of plot construction which we all recognize from literature and TV/film. It's brought about by the combination of an old habit with a certain shortness of vision.

    But I suspect another part of the problem as time went by would be the deliberate lowering of the bar - a "dumbing down" of systems and supplements - in order to appeal to younger, less patient, less creative, less intelligent, and less philosophical (i.e. let's face it: larger) markets.

  • edited October 2017
    Does Dream Askew qualify? I had a blast playing that one, something close to the 'PbtA with Fiasco style freeform collaboration' ideal.
    Now that I've looked at it: Yes! This is probably the hippiest PbtA game I've seen, and I mean that in a good way.
  • Does Dream Askew qualify? I had a blast playing that one, something close to the 'PbtA with Fiasco style freeform collaboration' ideal.
    Now that I've looked at it: Yes! This is probably the hippiest PbtA game I've seen, and I mean that in a good way.

    I think the 'power structure' is very interesting in Dream Askew and it's token dynamics are as good as in Technoir but if feels like there are too many player moves. We experienced difficulties with them.

    A very good material to hack IMHO.
  • edited October 2017
    Re: histories of railroading, it's funny, when I was a few years into RPGs I did know other ways to play, but running friends through my plots was actually one of the more fun ones. Partly because, unlike some railroady GMs, I was actually eager for player participation, but also because all the alternative play styles I knew had plenty of downsides of their own.

    I think the key for us was that even if the GM was the authority on the game, the GM was never the authority on the human social event. Everyone had a voice, and every opinion mattered. It took the internet to teach me that that was not always the case in RPGs. I still find that weird.

    Anyway, I don't find PbtA radically different on such fronts, but I'm sure its non-radical differences have a big impact on some groups.

    Funny story: after my longest AW game had reached a sort of partial conclusion, the group requested a short continuation to wrap up some remaining threads, and one player specifically requested an end to No Myth. She wanted a story to uncover. I took over the GM reins and did my best to provide that, but a bit of a clash developed between the One Interesting Thing To Address and our habits of letting these characters set their own directions on a continually evolving basis. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't as much fun as the first chunk of play.
  • Funny story: after my longest AW game had reached a sort of partial conclusion, the group requested a short continuation to wrap up some remaining threads, and one player specifically requested an end to No Myth. She wanted a story to uncover.
    Interestingly enough, I wouldn't call AW play "no myth". The MC's Fronts - well, the MC's Threats and Threat Map under 2e rules - are no less "real" (in the shared fictional sense) than anything written down on the character sheets, whether known to all or not, whether they do come up in play or not. AW threats look just as solid as any dungeon map to me.
  • Fair enough, "No Myth" was a lazy shorthand on my part. What I meant is that the player wanted more plot to uncover than "Here's what this Front is and how it operates."
  • Fair enough, "No Myth" was a lazy shorthand on my part. What I meant is that the player wanted more plot to uncover than "Here's what this Front is and how it operates."
    Could you offer a practical example of "more plot to uncover"?
    Because to me it still reads like the noMyth stuff, and to me makes little sense.

    In a recent Urban Shadows campaign were I was a Player the "plot" was this:
    Every year the two solstices mark the day of a ritual in which the Winter Court passes seasonal power to the Summer Court, and vice versa.
    But this year things went screwy because a human wizard wanted immortality, and to do so had the bright idea of summoning a major demon from some netherdimension.
    But to do it he needed the power of the solstice ritual.
    But also a huge amount of additional, personal, magical power.
    So he started kidnapping children to be sacrificed and drained of life force.
    All the while the 2 fae courts kept playing their petty power games because, you know, fae! And maybe they did not really know about the wizard plans, or just plainly underestimated the "puny human" potential for disaster.
    In all of this, low level agents from both courts, and the people around them, got caught in a web of schemes and favors and secrets.
    Enter the meddling PCs, blindly doing their own little things and getting gradually entangled into this invisible web right up to a dramatic season end, when the ritual finally happened and explosions and storms and epic battles happened.

    All of this was discovered by us, the Players, one tiny bit at a time.
    All of this was "prepped" by the GM in the most basic PbtA way... throwing on the table ideas on the fly, following the PC flags and actions, and making sense of whatever happened post facto, between one session and the next, shaping it up a bit with some prep work.
    Most of the more complex elements where actually random shit that was later normalised into the evolving story by the GM.
    Since we were not continuing the campaign beyond its epic finale, we had our GM spill the beans about the backstory and the prep work he had done. So we know :)

    This is pretty much the plot of an average Dresden Files novel.
    Is this "plot enough" for your Player friend, @David_Berg ?
    I have the feeling that the answer would be "no".
    Because the plot is not his true problem, in my opinion. Of course I am speculating here, and maybe I'm totally off track... I don't know your player. But I have a feeling I am not too wrong about it.

    Why?
    Because I think that the problem is a matter of authority. Or actually, the illusion of authority. The belief that one source of narration is legit, and all others are not.
    Which maps perfectly to the dichotomy Myth-vs-noMyth. Which in my experience is a false dichotomy, an illusion, a self suggestion on the part of the Player.

    If the GM says so, it's ok, it's valid, it's accepted, it's a surprise you discover.
    If another Player says the same thing, then nope, it's not good, it's not the same, it's not surprising.
    A game like AW undermines this illusion by showing some of the stuff that the GM does behind the screen ... and now even what the GM says is not good enough anymore!

    In practical terms the Players have no way to know if what the GM describes comes from a script they prepped, from the memory of reading a big published book, or from improvisation.
    But now that the GM's word is put into question the line separating what is perceived as solid fiction and what is not starts to blur.

    So the GM improvises stuff on the fly? Nope, not good enough.
    But is it good enough if the GM has the idea not now, not on the fly, but previously, during a previous scene?
    How about the start of the session?
    How about between one session and the other?
    How about at the start of the campaign?
    How about from a notebook the GM wrote imagining a future campaign?
    How about from a printed book existing outside of the GM's head?

    I actually met, back in the day, Players that deemed "less fun" to play if the adventure wasn't an official supplement. Or that would frown at any deviation the GM did from the game materials as written (talking about fictional content, not game procedures)(one very vocal episode happened during a short lived campaign with the SLA Industries rpg).

    I've met, in more recent times, Players that would get upset (not angry, but visibly uncomfortable) at the suggestion that the GM might describe stuff not because of their own spontaneous creativity, but because of game procedures. And do so in a weird sort of "don't ask, don't tell" way... like... they would play fine and enjoy the game, but if afterwards we ended up commenting on how the game produced this or that effect/event, with the GM pitching in on what was prepped or not... then this kind of conversation, this peeking behind the curtain, would trigger the Player.
    Strangely enough, the idea of the GM following to the dot a published adventure supplement did not faze that Player one bit o_O

    So, personally, I see this request of "please stop with the noMyth stuff" as an attempt to use the social contract to repair the rent veil of the illusion. The GM promised they won't make shit up, so I trust them, so I can believe again that everything comes from whatever I consider an acceptable source of truth.

    It's an bizarre and interesting behaviour, to me. Mostly because it feels so alien from how my mind works. At least, on the gaming table. I guess it's hard to notice this kind of self-deception when you do it to yourself :P
  • Fair enough, "No Myth" was a lazy shorthand on my part. What I meant is that the player wanted more plot to uncover than "Here's what this Front is and how it operates."
    NP! For what it's worth, I think I get what you meant - and what she meant. I just took advantage of the scaffolding you provided to set up an aside. :-)
  • All the "bad" things I do, I do for your own good, for the sake of everyone's enjoyment and fun.
    [...] their biggest problems and fears regarding interactive media had to do with "losing control" of plot.
    I see this as only natural.
    Trad games expect you to be a storyteller, only offering vague and unpractical "suggestions" on how to do it... it makes sense that the average player would resort to whatever narrative model they know: books, movies, tv shows, videogames.

    Problem is, these mediums are (mostly) linear and pre-set, created to transmit a story FROM the author TO the audience. The exceptions exist, but are few, and come with no instruction manual :P

    So there you have the good old "impossible thing before breakfast".
    A guy tasked to deliver an engaging story he wrote beforehand, to an audience that is actually very interactive and "powerful" and could screw up the aforementioned story in any number of ways.
    And the rest, as they say, is history.
  • edited October 2017
    Right. Well, as I stated above, the answer is not so much about "control" as it is about building a different sort of thing. The word "storyteller" is ridiculous in this context, implying as it does full control of plot. A GM might be "storyteller-like" in their ability to whip out great impromptu descriptive text, but that's the extent of it. That's all we need.

    In a well-run Trad Sandbox, the "story" - like the story of your life - can only be seen in retrospect.

  • edited October 2017
    Someone has probably done this before, but I tried to figure out some levels of GM power/player democracy in games. It's a work in progress (and possibly useless).

    1) Carefully democratic: No one has read the game text before the session, and the players read it together and figure out the whole game on the spot. Alternately, all players have roughly equal amounts of material only they are privy to before the game. I don't know any examples that demand this, but some games are designed to accomodate it.

    2) Prep power: No GM, but the facilitator of the session is familiar with the game and is typically the final authority on rules. Most GM-less games are played like this, I imagine.

    3) Rule-bound GM: The GM is technically bound by rules just like the players are. Burning Wheel is like this, I understand.

    4) Unlimited GM: The GM is in charge of the game, and the rules are just a toolbox. Trad RPGs are typically like this.

    I think there's a lot of drifting and uncertainty going on in between 3) and 4). Often I feel like PbtA (and indie) games are written to work as rule-bound, but end up being compromised or unlimited in practice, maybe because players are so used to the unlimited model, and it's an easy way out for the GM.
  • edited October 2017
    So, personally, I see this request of "please stop with the noMyth stuff" as an attempt to use the social contract to repair the rent veil of the illusion.
    I know exactly what you're talking about! I can certainly rant about sources of credibility some other time. This AW example wasn't that, though. It was just a situation where our play produced nothing nearly as coherent as a Dresden novel. It sounds to me like your GM/group went above and beyond in translating and embellishing your emergent story bits into some sort of "behind the scenes". AW doesn't promise that, and my group sure didn't attempt it. We had no multi-stage background scheme, just some diseases spreading and hostile outsiders encroaching. The plot-in-retrospect was entirely about what our characters made for themselves, not about what some ambitious NPC had in mind.
  • I may have encountered something similar : players wanting surprises, revelations. Sometimes the play style doesn't allow them, sometimes it's the game system. Sometimes they just don't know what they want.
  • I'm pretty darn sure I run AW by the book, and there are a lot of surprises and revelations involved. There usually is a "big plot" to uncover, too: "what caused the apocalypse" or "what's the psychic maelstrom" - though, playing it by the book, I'm usually just as surprised at the outcome as any other player. :-)

    But I understand the request @David_Berg got from his players to be more in the lines of "Will you bake a cake for me like it's my birthday?" (to which, when asked nicely, the answer of course has to be "Yes, to the best of my capability!")
  • I might be reading too much between the lines... as usual :grimace:
    But...
    our play produced nothing nearly as coherent as a Dresden novel. It sounds to me like your GM/group went above and beyond in translating and embellishing your emergent story bits into some sort of "behind the scenes". AW doesn't promise that
    No, we really put no effort in embellishing the emergent story.
    No, AW doesn't promise that.
    But US surely does! :)
    AW has a different approach to prep than US. I see this as the main cause for our gaming outcome.
    US encourages heavier GM prep, more dot connecting, more GM loaded info.
    And the moves push this even further: there is one move where you basically establish on the fly PAST connections to any relevant NPC you get in contact with.
    The more you play, the more everything and everyone gets networked and connected.
    By the end of our 10-ish sessions campaign, what started out as random strands and individual goals had become a tangle of plot lines converging to a common climax.
    In our after-campaign chat the GM made it clear that he was "gently" pushing in that direction, and how the system allowed him to do that... like... you DO play to find out, and even near the very end we were ALL getting surprised by new info and revelations (GM included)... but then whenever it made sense, whenever there was possibility within the emergent story, the GM would go in the direction of dot-connection rather than exploring new unrelated paths.

    AW doesn't do that. AW is all about the human feels brought up by the circumstantial action and violence. It's meant to produce a simpler but more visceral story.
    Still, you can have plenty of depth there too!
    Like...
    We had no multi-stage background scheme, just some diseases spreading and hostile outsiders encroaching. The plot-in-retrospect was entirely about what our characters made for themselves, not about what some ambitious NPC had in mind.
    From just that I could ask a bunch of stuff:
    What was the nature of the disease? Was it natural? Where did it came from? Who took advantage of it? Did someone spread it on purpose?
    Who are the encroaching outsiders? What do they want? Who's collaborating with them? Who sees them as an opportunity? And in which way?

    AW encourages the GM to ask this questions to the Players through active play. At best they are bangs, at worst they are plot leads. They COULD reveal some complex backstory, but only if it emerges as by-product of the actions of the PCs.

    So unless the Players ask such questions and are proactively going about to find the answers... then of course the emergent plot will be very simple. Where simple is not a bad attribute, it's just what is better and fitting for a "take action about this situation" story rather than a "unveil a complex chain of cause and effect" kind of story.
    It's the AW style.
    Seems to me that your Player wanted more convoluted backstory, but maybe did not act in-game to get it?
    As Rafu put it, he was asking for a finished cake, not for the ingredients and directions to make one.
    Which to me is a nice way to say that he wanted to be an audience to your story.
    Which is just not how AW works, and as you've seen if you push it in that direction all the rest works worse and the overall end result just feels meh.

    US (and I would also say DW, actually) instead encourages the GM to come up with their own answers through prep. The Players will then reveal the backstory and interact with it. And of course the level of detail is relatively low, so that new play can reveal new info that the GM can easily leverage to reinforce his backstory or assimilate to modify the yet undiscovered parts of his prep, according to the current emergent facts.

    In my experience this stuff is anything but obvious to the Players and GM :P
    For reasons linked to the "PbtA degeneration" I mentioned.

    AW1 and even more AW2 make a big deal of the play to find out thing, with the Principle and its explanation but most of all with a structure that (for the most part) supports this effect. I mean, all the moves and other moving parts do a good job of either supporting or at least not getting in the way of it.
    Cool.

    But still people have a hard time getting it, I know I had, and need time and practice and corrections to actually get it, digest it, and really do it. It's not rocket science but it's a radically different approach from Trad gaming. Even for the more sandbox-y people.

    Then comes along DW that fucks up a lot of things right here, in this already nebulous area of the game system. Maybe "fuck up" is not the right term, but it surely made a bunch of steps back towards the direction of Trad prep and plot handling.
    The Principles and their explanation read almost the same, but the overall structure is much friendlier to prep-heavy play.
    This in and of itself is a problem, as people think they are playing "PbtA style" (as if it ws the same thing across the board of PbtA games) and instead end up doing stuff that in AW would never fly.

    It's no wonder there are "dungeon starters" for DW but there is no such thing for AW :astonished:
  • @Hasimir - "US" == "Urban Shadows"?
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