Friday, 27 November 2015

Quick and Dirty: Powered by the Dramapocalypse

HILLFOLK made quite a splash a couple of years ago, winning multiple awards and introducing a lot of gamers to the idea of drama-centric gaming. At our table, we played a series powered by HILLFOLK's Dramasystem, "Southern Rock Opera". We found that there were a lot of things that we liked about Dramasystem, but a lot of things we weren't satisfied with too. It felt a lot like a promising first edition of a game that could really be made to shine in further iterations.

One of the main irritants, we found, was the "procedural" system in the game. Put simply, it always felt too difficult to accomplish anything in the game that wasn't a dramatic petition. Failure seemed to be weighted so heavily that we dreaded using that part of the rules. Ultimately, our GM Rob began tinkering with it, and hybridized some PRIMETIME ADVENTURES mechanics to handle that side of the game. That worked, but again, felt a little rough around the edges.

After a year filled with games that featured mechanics "Powered by the Apocalypse", I think that perhaps using APOCALYPSE WORLD's core mechanic as a substitute for the procedural system would be a winner. Just in case you're not familiar with that game or its many spin-offs, players roll 2d6 to make a "Move" in A*World games. Rolling a 10+ gets you what you want, plus a little extra. Rolling a 6 or less means that you don't get what you want, and the GM gets to make a Move -- this often means that things start to get bad for your character. The possibility of real consequences make Moves feel risky and important. But most rolls seem to fall in the fruitful middle -- a roll of 7-9 means that the character gets some of what they want, but not all of it, or they generate some kind of a consequence they hadn't intended. Often, you have to make some kind of hard choice that makes your life much more complicated.

Those options are much more satisfying than the procedural system as written, and simple enough that the GM can apply them broadly to a range of different situations. As has been observed in certain PbtA games like SPIRIT OF 77, you could run a satisfying but simple game using just that one core mechanic and nothing else. So why not? Let's imagine the Dramapocalypse, where the 2d6 PbtA roll is substituted for the procedural system.

First, I think you could either opt for a broadly applicable use of the rule (as described in SPIRIT OF 77) where there are no defined results on each roll, only the guiding ethos of "succeeds with a little extra", "succeeds, BUT...!", and "Things get Difficult" as your results. As I've observed elsewhere, using something like the MC Principles that appear in each iteration of PbtA would be implied, keeping the GM from taking too much license with a broad roll. You could even have the group decide the results of a procedural roll by consensus, rather than have the GM decide, though that would remove the ability of the GM to use a Miss to generate unanticipated changes in the story as a result of a Soft Move. Sometimes those are invisible to players, at least for a while.

The GM could also generate defined Moves for things that are going to be important in the game, such as an EVA move for a game about astronauts, or perhaps a Psi move for a game about psychics. This makes sense and has the virtue of being transparent - players know what they're risking when they make the Move. This is entirely within the spirit of PbtA, and shouldn't be too much work -- you could simply re-skin some of the existing Moves to your liking.

Mechanically, let me add a little more meat to the bones here. Rolls would be modified by character aptitudes/actions. You might have broad traits like in HILLFOLK (the actions there are Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, and Sneaking), something that describes the character's Profession and general knowledge (it might be important in a game about ghost hunters to know who is a Psychic Sensitive and who is a Parapsychologist, or you might want to know who's a skilled gambler and who is the best liar in a crime game) or more tightly defined Skills (if you're playing a game about detectives, let's say, and everyone has an area of specialty). Each roll would allow you to add a +1 if your character has an applicable aptitude/action. You wouldn't want player characters to have more than three, I don't think; the idea here is to give them a bonus for the things they're actually good at.

Further, you might want to allow players to add +1 to their rolls if the procedural action is related in some way to a relationship they have. Let's say you just played a dramatic scene and the petitioner asked for the other character to take a particular action, or they're doing it because they hope it will help them convince the other character to like them -- that would qualify for a bonus. This makes dramatic conflicts and motivations relevant to procedural actions.

GMs might also allow players to spend tokens for bonuses in making a procedural roll. Drama tokens would get you +1 to your roll, and you could spend as many as you like -- but you can't stack your bonuses higher than +3 on any given roll. This means there's always a meaningful risk when you make a procedural roll.

Bennies are a different kind of token in Dramasystem, one of the many bits that felt inelegant in the original game. In this iteration of the procedural rules, players could spend Bennies for a single re-roll of a procedural check, though they would have to accept the second roll even if it was a worse result than the original. It would make Bennies particularly powerful if players could spend them on behalf of other players (or perhaps in spite of, if they are allowed to force a re-roll as interference in the A*W style). I'd also eliminate the clunky way players are forced to advocate for their Bennies at the end of the session. The player with the highest remaining amount of drama points gets a Bennie, with ties going to the GM's discretion, and a second Bennie would go to a GM-decided (or consensus) MVP for that session.

What do you think, sirs? (What can I say, it's MST3K Turkey Day as I write this, and I'm running on very little sleep. Pity my crazy brain.)

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