Taking PCs’ Stuff: better D&D via Apocalypse World

This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.

This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.

Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.

Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.

With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?

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Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

I’ve recently been working on a swords & sorcery-inspired Apocalypse World (AW) hack, trying to create something which fits the themes present in Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, Steven Brust’s Taltos novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. In doing this, I’ve had an interesting realization about the construction of AW and the games it has inspired: dualistic tension in the games’ principles drives the dramatic and thematic tension which fuels their best stories.

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New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative

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I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7.  I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times.  But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look.  I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance.  I’m glad I did.  It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.

There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify.  These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later.  The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters.  I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.

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Into the Storm, by Taylor Anderson

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This book falls into a strangely particular sweet spot for me; there’s something about the alt-history technological bootstrapping genre that I find appealing, and the obviously idealized social dynamics presented in this book are endearing if not convincing.  Furthermore, S.M. Stirling’s cover blurb pulled me over the edge into reading it.  I was not quite as automatically engrossed as he apparently was, but Into The Storm has made excellent reading material while I’ve been laid up following an unfortunate paintball incident.

The basic concept is very simple, transposing an American WWI destroyer caught in action against the Japanese at the opening of WWII from our world into an alternate world in which (more or less) the dinosaurs never really died away.  The story is all about the destroyer’s crew doing their best to survive in a strange new world, and doing what they can to find friends who might be able to help them keep their ship operating instead of simply falling apart.  It feels a little like S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time crossed with Eric Flint’s 1632, but instead of dealing with a town or island it focuses entirely on a very small warship.  The crew is wonderfully convincing, right down to their malicious pranking and oddly neurotic idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy following all of their various perspectives as the story progresses.  The crew actually reminds me a little of the residents of an Apocalypse World hardhold or members of a Chopper’s gang.

Now, when I say “endearing if not convincing” up above, I don’t mean to disparage the author’s conception of hierarchical systems founded on an egalitarian society.  As it’s presented, it seems to work pretty well.  But the author’s clear preference for the system by which ‘the good guys’ operate is so transparent that I feel unable to accept it at face value.  I don’t have experience with living and working on a US Navy vessel, I have no idea whether or not Anderson’s description is anything like the truth, and I suspect that what Anderson describes is closer to the ideal towards which his hierarchical system strives rather than the reality.  I’m certainly aware of many failure modes that would prevent a hierarchical system from working nearly so well as it’s presented in the book.  I think of it as a variation on the likable / wish-fulfillment protagonist problem; it’s really not actually much of a problem, so long as we remain aware of the fact that we’re idealizing the subjects of our attention, be they characters or systems of governance.

Also, I found the gender relations of the human characters (and characterizations of the male vs. female human characters) to be pretty frustrating.  I had a hard time taking the characterizations of the male and female leads seriously, because they seemed so stereotypically 1940s to me.  At a guess, Anderson was trying to ensure that these things were appropriate for a group of people in the US Navy in 1942 (unsurprising given his previous work as a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries), and I’m ok with that for the most part even though it turned me off the book to some extent (some things, methinks, are better left in the 1940s).  But he doesn’t really explore any of the disconnect between the humans’ attitudes and those of their newfound allies in this first book.  If/when he does get around to exploring that, and looking at the ramifications of further association between their two cultures, I think that has the potential to be super interesting.  If he just glosses over that topic over the next several books, I suspect I’d be a bit disappointed.

So!  If you’ve read and enjoyed Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, or Flint’s 1632, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book as well.  If you haven’t read them but are intrigued by the idea of a group of wanderers on the seas of time and space, doing their best to reestablish themselves safely in a dangerous and not-so-subtly different world, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.  If you don’t think you can tolerate some nearly-stereotypically-1940s gender roles, or some very nearly Apocalypse World-like shenanigans, maybe wait and see what I have to see about the next book before deciding whether this one is worth it.

What Flavor Is Your Game?

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I like vanilla ice cream.  I have for a very long time.  Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too.  Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.

When I was little, I played make-believe all the time.  A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D.  My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them.  Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS.  More other games followed.  Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from.  I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob.  I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.

But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”?  And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?

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Monsterhearts: taking a peek under the ribcage

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Monsterhearts sells itself as “the messy lives of teenage monsters.”  But the truth is that the monstrous nature of the PCs in any game of Monsterhearts really just serves as a reminder of the alienation, discomfort, and feeling of mislabeled or misunderstood powerlessness that gnawed at so many of us when we were teenagers.  And maybe as adults as well.  Furthermore, themes which have filled classic literature for ages rear their heads again and again in this game; you don’t have to have ever experienced any of them yourself in order to be fascinated by and indulge yourself in them.

A quick background: this is an RPG which has grown out of the Apocalypse World system created by Vincent Baker.  It takes the sparse elegance of Baker’s ruleset and applies it to a very different type of life.  Read on to find out what makes Monsterhearts different from Apocalypse World, and learn some of what makes it so dynamic and so much fun to play.

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Putting Power in Players’ Paws

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Ok, so your players probably have hands, not paws, but I liked the alliteration.

The traditional roleplaying game, D&D, is very much structured in a specific way: the GM has a specific game/plot/monster that the players have to beat. In this way, D&D is structured much like a computer RPG, it just happens to be played with multiple players (and so can Baldur’s Gate 2, not to mention World of Warcraft).

There is value to this model; if you have one GM who is particularly good at plotting stories and taking care of all of the details of the world, and a lot of players without a knack for world-building, well, why not run a game like this? Labor gets divided up appropriately, and everybody gets to do what they’re good at.

Typically, however, everybody has something to offer to the story if given the chance, and 4 minds can probably come up with better ideas overall than just 1. This is why, typically (especially if I really trust the players), I prefer to run games that are much more player-driven. For me, good player-driven systems are those which have narrative elements built into them. The most obvious examples would be any game with a Fate point system. Such systems tend to give fate points to the player, and they can narrate something about the world that is unlikely but still possible by expending a Fate point. However, for me, the pinnacle of player-driven games is Apocalypse World. I understand that there are MORE player-driven games, but I find that the lack of a solid authority in completely player-driven games tends to leave most people feeling unsatisfied. Apocalypse World is the perfect balance: it lets the players help create the world and orient the plot, but doesn’t give them too much power to determine results.

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Player Action, Player Inaction

I have often focused too narrowly on what will happen when the players follow the trails that I have laid out for them.  But what do you do when the players don’t want to play with any of the plot you’ve got prepared for them?  And what happens with the problems that they’re ignoring?

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