Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Adjudicating tone and genre through moves in PbtA games

[Edit: Jonathan Walton reminded me that in this blog post I was actually talking about a subset of moves, which was not made explicit in the original text. There are many moves that cannot be simply reduced to a "Defy Danger" equivalent and there are even moves that don't have a fictional trigger which I implied in the starting paragraph. "Increase your hot by +1" is a legit move and doesn't fall under this discussion. I just kinda assumed all of that because otherwise I'd have to explain more stuff.]

Prefacing with some basic stuff you all know: Players don't decide to trigger moves, or "activate" them like powers. Moves are triggered by the fiction. That requires an instance of judgment. As with (virtually) all roleplaying games, that judgment is carried out through a silent consensus of the table, but ultimately that responsibility falls to the MC.

Now, there are many levers that subtly or less subtly inform the tone and genre of the fiction for both players and the MC. Seed content (Names, stuff...), principles ("barf forth apocalyptica", "play your characters as real people"), gamebook art, boxes-to-clouds mechanics informing the fiction, etc.

Systems are about how we agree at the table about what happens in the fiction. Tone and genre are about expectations of what happens in the fiction. Game design is about saying something, including saying something about the source material, the genre. These are all tied together. (I could go on a whole tangent here about emulating genre & source material with the AW framework, but that's for another day).

Moves have pretty specific and clearly defined triggers. Some more so than others, in some games more than in others. You do it, it happens. When you go aggro on someone, you go aggro on someone.

However there's some...wiggle room (I dread to call it that) for the MC in the moment of judgement there. Like, when you walk up behind Dremmer and shoot him in the head, do you just do it, dealing harm? Are you acting under fire, and the fire is he (or someone else) notices you first? Are you going aggro and the thing you want him to do is keel over and bleed out into the irradiated sand? It's impossible to say without context, with the actual in-the-moment situation, and without a judgment call about that situation.

If you peel back layer after layer from AW, making it an ever simpler game, I think there's a good reason for ending up with only one move - the ubiquitous Defy Danger/Act Under Fire/Tempt Fate/Do Something Dangerous (as also evidenced by the World of Dungeons/Bootleggers lineage). All (basic) moves are about a moment of crisis, a risk. Danger is relative here. It might be social, emotional, physical, financial, metaphysical. What matters is that you're risking something.*

So at some fundamental level adjudicating moves is about adjudicating the danger. What is dangerous and how, to what degree - if at all.

Which finally brings me to my point: that moment of judgment is where the GM/MC has the space to set the tone of the game, from comedic to heroic, from gritty to pulp. This invariably impacts the overall (sub)genre as well.

I'm just going to throw out a bunch of examples. I'm going to use DW as the system in the examples.

GM: "A great tentacled horror from before time crawls out of a dark and slimy pit and it begins smashing everything with its pseudopods, you see it crush a donkey cart like it's a child's toy. What do you do?"

Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, you cleave its jellied flesh, spraying brain matter everywhere and it slides back into the pit with agonized screeching."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, seems to me like you're hacking and slashing? Go for it."
Player: "A full hit! I'm chopping its tentacles left and right."
MC: "Cool! You deal damage, hacking your way through, but you're not at its core yet."

Ex. 3
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Great! But it's flailing its slimy tentacles around. They're wooshing dangerously close to your face. You're going to have to defy danger to even attempt any sort of attack. Do you still want to do it?"

Ex. 4
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "It swats you aside like a fly. Your steel and mortal strength can't possibly match its arcane power."

Now, within the rules, those are technically all legit situations and outcomes, depending on the fiction. The player always narrates what is fundamentally the same (re)action, but if you watched the scene in a movie, it would play out completely differently, and not just in terms of outcomes, but - far more importantly - in terms of feel. The first is epic, heroic, perhaps even comical. The last one is desperate and gritty. Again, just one scene isn't enough, but you get my drift.

I wanted to try another example, from a different perspective, with the player narrating different actions:

GM: "The thug stands in the narrow opening of the alleyway, digging her heel in the sand and drawing a knife. She won't let you pass."

Ex. 1
Player: "I draw my dagger and advance on her, trying to knock her weapon to the ground."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run up the side of the wall, vaulting off it and slicing at her with my double scimitar as I pirouette to the ground."

Of course, the GM can again respond in any number of ways to both of the above. Just a couple of examples again:

GM: "Cool, she's out of the way."
GM: "Ok, it seems like you're defying danger to me. The danger of course being she shanks you while you wave your fancy weapon around."
GM: "You go at it, fighting in the street. I assume you're hacking and slashing?"

And so on...depending on the GM's response, the scenes might again appear and feel wildly different to someone watching them in a movie. The bottom line is, the way the situation/action are judged as dangerous/non dangerous, possible/impossible, difficult/easy and to what degree, can significantly alter the tone of the game and twist the genre of the game itself. This is also part of a response to all those "but how do I do difficulty modifiers in AW/DW/whatever?" questions that keep popping up.

Addendum: Some of the PbtA games are more susceptible to this than others. Fantasy is malleable by default, so DW is a great game to make my point. Monsterhearts probably significantly less so. The last AW hack I ran was The Hood and there was sufficient judgment space (and just general creative space) to tune it more like The Wire or Lock, Stock and Two smoking barrels, which play quite differently. Sagas was definitely written with a naturalistic, realistic prose in mind, but I'm sure it can be done in a more buffed up, epic Beowulf-style (the Man's bean-counting playbook is probably the least accommodating in this sense) even though I've not done it myself yet.

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