Tuesday, 13 May 2014

This Strange Engine

I've been doing a lot of reading lately, trying to absorb everything I can get my hands on that uses Vincent Baker's APOCALYPSE WORLD engine. It's weird, because my first reaction to the game was not a positive one. The first impression I got was that AW was way too structured for my liking, putting up very rigid rules for how things were done on both sides of the GM screen. How was this a revolution in storytelling, as it was touted in the indie RPG world?

Sometimes you find your way to something via the Robert Frost memorial Long Way Round, however, and eventually I came back to AW via one of its many children, MONSTERHEARTS by Joe McDaldno. What seemed like an unnecessary structure in AW really took off for me in MH, because of that game's laser-focus on the messy lives of teenage monsters.

The sex moves -- which I didn't feel AW made a good case for, despite the fact that play at our table often involves sexytimes (though often offscreen) -- really made sense and added something in MH.

I don't know. Maybe I just plain liked McDaldno's writing better than I liked Baker's.

After playing a couple of MH one-shots, which produced good, tense short-term play, I started exploring the wide world of AW hacks. I probably have Sean Nittner to thank for that, because he kindly shared his APOCALYPSE GALACTICA hack with the rest of us, and really got my engine running for this stuff. I've also got excellent hacks of DEADWOOD and UNKNOWN ARMIES (via Peter Goderie's superlative THE WORLD OF OUR DESIRES hack). The latter is very near the top of my list of stuff I'd like to run, because it does a better job than the original game of explaining what an UA game should look like.

Some of the AW engine stuff I'm not so sure about. I've heard almost universally good stuff about DUNGEON WORLD, which I purchased recently and eagerly read through. It seems like a fun game, sure, but the thing that initially turned me off about DW and other games like TREMULUS was that it didn't seem to be about something the same way that MH is about being a horny, screwed-up teen. They just used the rules as a different kind of procedural system, which in my estimation is not quite enough to justify their existence. Perhaps I'll feel differently after I've played them, as opposed to just reading them. Or maybe it's just that I happened to start with an outstanding game that makes the others seem pale by comparison.

It might be that.

Here's where I am with the ruleset as a whole. I think, like many "indie" games, AW intended to teach us how to play games in a certain way. That was AW's spine -- the player-facing rules, constraining the MC to a set of highly-defined "Moves" and explicit principles of action, all in the service of driving the fictional side of the game. The engine makes it concrete that players drive play and the GM cannot abuse his power because his actions are limited to a set list of possibilities. For someone who tends toward shared narrative and emergent play as a general policy, that may be why AW initially felt too constrained. Why did I need all this structure to help me do something I was doing anyway?

But then again, Vincent Baker wasn't necessarily aiming his game at my head. Well, maybe I might get paranoid enough to think that if I had enough coffee in me.

I think those goals of play are satisfying enough to a wide enough range of players (who might not necessarily play games that require so much shared input from players) that we have all these hacks -- some of them marvelous. And yeah, maybe each one doesn't have to justify its existence thematically beyond a commitment to playing in a certain kind of game space.

I'm still left with the feeling that DW and TREMULUS could have done better, though, with a McDaldno-like mind at the helm. A new set of rules for Lovecraftian horror? Fine and dandy, although there are so many now you can't swing a dead shantak over your head without hitting one. A new game that re-frames Lovecraftian horror, and explores its themes -- like Sanity -- from a new perspective?

Now that's a hack I'd like to see. Or maybe Peter Goderie's already written it...?

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