Saturday, 9 May 2015

Of Gunluggers and Savvyheads

To lug or not to lug?

After a disappointing aborted attempt to run APOCALYPSE WORLD last summer, I’m finally getting a chance to play it in the near future – on the player side, not the GM, but still. It’s a game I’m looking forward to.

Looking at AW now, after the explosion of games that emerged using the same basic engine, it’s interesting how well it holds up in some ways and how it has been surpassed in others. The structure of the game, with its cycle of risk and consequences, the formality of “moves”, and its rigid role for the MC, have become familiar and even common parts of the gaming landscape now, but they were a seismic shift in roleplaying when Vincent Baker launched the game in 2010. Can it really be that long ago already? I remember reading it for the first time and being left with a profound sense of unease at the way the MC’s role was restricted. And “special” sex moves? Huh? Do we need mechanics for that? Really?

It was Avery McDaldno’s MONSTERHEARTS that really opened my eyes to how this game system works best, with her lucid explanations and razor-sharp focus on the theme of teenage monsters exploring their sexuality. It was also the first game to show the limitations of the source material, I think, because I think Avery’s take on the sex moves idea improves on Baker in every way. (Much of this comes from the idea of “strings” that powers MH, but I digress.) Reading AW after MH, it’s clear that many of the sex moves are not that interesting, although the idea was powerful and important. So important and powerful that most other creators who’ve made use of the system have quietly ignored them and moved on to more familiar gaming territory. Such is gaming orthodoxy.

Playing a long arc of DUNGEON WORLD online has given me what I feel like is a good grasp of the central mechanism of these games – the 2d6 plus modifier roll by the player, and the unintended consequences that make the action “swing” in different directions when that roll doesn’t go according to plan. Whole episodes of DW online were shaped by the Moves I made to respond to a player Miss, which is pretty neat on the GM side of things. I felt – perhaps wrongly – that I was compelled to use the online tools to make traditional “dungeons” for my game, but they would often get embellishments that I didn’t plan on. Make maps, leave blanks. I learned by experience the difference between Soft Moves and Hard Moves, and how a Soft Move can actually be pretty powerful and satisfying.

One thing that has absolutely not been improved upon or equaled is Vincent Baker’s kick-out-the-jams, take-no-prisoners tone in the original APOCALYPSE WORLD text. This was a game that intended to kick you in the teeth and steal your milk money while you were squirming around on the ground. The language was salty and aggressive, slapping you upside the head every once in a while just to make sure you’re paying attention. It’s a game that sets out to hit our assumptions about gaming and the relationship between players and the GM at two hundred miles per hour with a supercharged muscle car covered in spikes and armor plates.

Hell yes.

So that brings me back to my problem: what playbook do I want to take on?

I tend to gravitate toward soulful tough guys, and it would be very easy for me to take on the Gunlugger and have a lot of fun with it. A part of me likes to be aggressive and violent in games, and it must be said, most games are A-OK with that mode of play. Although violence is not generally going to win you many friends, in games, it’s a valid way to shake things up and have an influence in the game world, and no matter what way the Apocalypse ends up looking in our game, chances are it’s going to need a few ugly buggers who are good at kicking heads and shooting people in the face.

My only qualifier is that I feel like I’ve played this type of guy one too many times, maybe, and I’m not sure I have a really novel way of approaching it. Which begs the question, do you need novelty in your gaming? Or is the satisfying and familiar enough? I like to challenge myself, but I’m not sure what kind of challenge interests me at this point.

The Savvyhead, the psychic mechanic-type, also appeals: someone who taps into the Weirdness that is ever-present in the Apocalypse. With another player taking the Brainer, however, that might skew a game a little too far toward the Weird end of the scale. I also know that Megan is planning to take a Driver – and having a character who emphasizes mobility while another has a static workshop might not be a good combination. Still, I like the idea of playing a Maker, someone who’s actually trying to build things and make things work. A fighter against the all-encompassing entropy that is the Apocalypse. I just can’t quite picture what that person is like, yet.

The Operator also appeals to me, because it’s the closest to another archetype that I gravitate toward: the weasely little sneak-thief. The Operator is a guy with his fingers in a lot of pies, or a lot of dikes, if you prefer. I could angle it so that he was a thief and a con man, if I liked, or a low-rent killer, or a scout. This is a guy I can see pretty clearly in my mind, a quick talker, a trouble-maker, the sort of character that Steve Buscemi plays an awful lot of. I think you need to understand the humanity of a character like that, though, or it could grate on the player as much as he will surely grate on his associates. What’s that guy trying to build? Who does he love, and what’s he willing to sacrifice to protect them?

I’m not that interested in playing any of the playbooks that focus on having minions or big responsibilities, like the Hardholder, although that does mean you get to define a big chunk of real estate in the game. The Battlebabe interests me, but I have trouble imagining a character that’s so good at causing trouble in the game not being able to protect themselves better. You almost inevitably rely on others to clean up your messes, and that’s not cool (for me, anyway). The social aspect of the Skinner is appealing, but I don’t really have an angle on it that I can see as being fun to play quite yet. You kind of have to be a politician, but without any of the trappings of the Hardholder. Maybe the idea is to build up your own empire in play. I might be able to get behind that. I tend to like Quixotic optimists, people who believe in something.

Still. It can be a lot of fun being the most dangerous guy in the room…

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