Tuesday, 6 September 2016
Last weekend we played MONSTER OF THE WEEK for the second week running. Various things have kept us from returning to NOT FADE AWAY, my Fate immortals game, but I had been feeling the itch to roll some dice and wanting to get back into it with something lighter in tone. We had a lot of fun playing MotW, which falls toward the crunchier, more traditional end of the Powered By The Apocalypse games, like DUNGEON WORLD. It also reminded me of something that was an issue when I ran DW for my online group last year. It's not a game-breaker, exactly, but something that I think bears consideration.
The original APOCALYPSE WORLD and games that cleave very closely to its design, like MONSTERHEARTS, are written to be very "tight" games. The mechanics are aimed at providing tight control over important moments in the narrative, moments that are explicitly defined by the rules. If you're trying to hurt someone, or intimidate them, or manipulate someone, the rules say you roll the dice and see what happens. The dice are unforgiving: you can succeed on a 10+, but you're much more likely to get a marginal success (on a 7-9). Or, God help you, a Miss; as Vincent Baker says, then the GM gets to decide what happens, and you're not gonna like it.
The narrative assumption built into those games is that because you know the stakes are high whenever you do those things that are defined as Moves -- and you can be sure that the games have carefully defined the Moves as genre/setting-specific actions that will be important in the fictions -- you are generally careful about when you make a Move. Do I want this badly enough to risk a Miss? This is an important question. When the dice come out, shit gets real in APOCALYPSE WORLD. That is what makes AW and MH awesome games. Actions have delicious consequences, and often they're not happy ones.
Here's the problem. A traditional game model, like the one in DW and MotW, assumes a different kind of tone to the game and a different kind of character. Traditional games -- games that are focused on adventure, exploration, and action, rather than intercharacter drama -- demand characters that are more active and direct. You have to assume that if you're playing a mighty thewed barbarian or an intrepid monster hunter, you're going to be out there kicking ass and looking for trouble. In game terms, what this inevitably means is that you're going to have more Moves designed to let you do active, ass-kicking, monster-hunting, dungeon-exploring things. And it means you're going to be rolling them more often, with a lot less caution than you would in MONSTERHEARTS, say.
More rolls means more failures. That's just a fact of life in PbtA games. Even if you've got sweet bonuses piled up, you still have a non-zero chance of failing every time you roll. And if you roll a lot, which this style of play inevitably demands, that means you Miss a lot, which means the GM gets to make Moves against you a lot. Missing doesn't necessarily mean you fail, straight up, it means that things tend to escalate, get worse. The wheels of the story quickly spin out of the GM's control, and into new and unexplored territory.
This is good and bad. It's good because emergent play is the whole point of good roleplaying and PbtA games particularly. The GM has enough latitude with their Moves that they needn't always have something terrible happen right away (a "hard" Move), but they can use the opportunity to telegraph something bad that's going to happen soon if the players don't take immediate action (a "soft" Move). This is well and good, so far.
It starts to become bad because dice are fickle little monsters. They aren't satisfied with mathematical probabilities, and regularly conjure up a cascade of failures, one after another. Poor John, one of my regular players, rolled a series of 3-4 Misses in a row. If this happens, things can get silly quickly. The GM has to quickly come up with not one, but a series of escalations that lurch things in unexpected directions. I had to quickly come up with a new foe when a jailbreak went awry. I think it worked out okay, but the overall tone of the game was very silly.
I had the same experience when I ran DW. For every moment of tense action, we had half a dozen moments where the wheels came off and turned into low comedy. And that's fine, if that's what you want out of your game. I think a lot of traditional players do want that kind of thing in their games, and I don't have any issues with games being escapist, or even straight-up silly. But it's limiting in what kinds of adventures you can have with that kind of assumption built into the game. I wouldn't have been able to run a monster-hunting game as serious as my Victorian epic SUNSET EMPIRE with MotW, I don't think.
Another issue is that DW and MotW award experience based on failures rolled, and when you end up rolling a lot (this is particularly a problem in games with a small number of players, which concentrate the number of rolls on a few people) this means people advance in erratic ways. It's a nice compensation for having fail after fail, I guess, but I don't care for this as an advancement scheme.
My players at the table are enjoying MotW so far, and I think we all needed a game that let us laugh and be light for a few sessions. But DW didn't appeal to my online guys, and I think that it was this cascading failure effect that made that game a problem. And I think that boils down to an essential disconnect in these PbtA spin-off games: In APOCALYPSE WORLD, rolls feel important, and when you fail you generate consequences that feel important. In DW and MotW, you're often rolling dice for more prosaic, procedural reasons, and when the narrative starts to take wild turns with the whims of the dice, it can feel random or even absurd.
Sometimes in a traditional game, you just want to fail at something and move on. Complicated failures are not always interesting, or necessary.