Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The whole world is a Savvyhead's workspace

So in Apocalypse World there's this guy that's called the Savvyhead. He fixes things and he has a workspace where he does his thing. On his character sheet it says:

When you go into your workspace and dedicate yourself to making a thing, or to getting to the bottom of some shit, decide what and tell the MC. The MC will tell you “sure, no problem, but…” and then 1 to 4 of the following:
• it’s going to take hours/days/weeks/months of work;
• first you’ll have to get/build/fix/figure out ___;
• you’re going to need ___ to help you with it;
• it’s going to cost you a fuckton of jingle;
• the best you’ll be able to do is a crap version, weak and unreliable;
• it’s going to mean exposing yourself (plus colleagues) to serious danger;
• you’re going to have to add ___ to your workplace first;
• it’s going to take several/dozens/hundreds of tries;
• you’re going to have to take ___ apart to do it.
The MC might connect them all with “and,” or might throw in a merciful “or.”
Once you’ve accomplished the necessaries, you can go ahead and accomplish the thing itself. The MC will stat it up, or spill, or whatever it calls for.

I've been thinking about this for months now. I don't know where I first got the idea from. It was probably "original" but I can trace it back to three sources of inspiration. I'll break it down quickly.

1) So the first thing is Apocalypse World, obviously. The the basic form of Moves in AW says "when....then...". It could be "When you drink water out of the Black River, roll+Hard [and then one of these things can happen." or whatever. I was thinking about in-fiction rewards. Everything you can earn you earn it in game. And then I kinda reversed the Move. Instead of thing X happening when you do thing Y, the player asks for thing X and the GM/MC tells you you can do Y to get it...which is basically the Savvyhead move anyway.

2) The second is this post by Zak. Leveling up "locally" - an answer to "having feats" in oD&D: you get powers, skills, tricks, schticks, spells...based on where you are. Anyway, read the post.

3) Then Storming the Wizard's Tower (right click/save as on picture if you want it). There's this advancement scheme in Storming where one of the rewards is getting new character classes to play. You defeat the evil werewolf things in the woods and next session you can create an ex-werewolf atoned wolf child or something. Or you go rescue the mud fishermen's village and next session you can create a new character that's one of their mud-wizards. You see where this is heading?
(somewhat related: one of the advancements (level-ups) in Apocalypse World is the ability to play two characters)

4) A fourth and unknown source was the whole idea of all the rewards being in-fiction. I dunno where I picked it up. A million blog and forum posts over the course of years probably. Doesn't matter.

What I'm getting at
Old school play: I'm a wizard, I know a Light spell. Our rogue has been poisoned. "GM, I want to cast Light on the poison in his blood so we can see how far from his heart it is." "Sure."
Or the GM announces that a goblin jumps at us from the trees. "GM I want to cast featherfall on him." "Sure, he becomes feather-light and the wind carries him away." (But those are just "yes" examples.)

What do you want? Dedicate yourself to making a thing, or getting to the bottom of some shit, or learn something, or achieve something or find something. Tell the GM what you want. The GM will tell you "sure, no problem". Sometimes he'll tell you "but...". Sometimes he'll ask you to make a roll.

Another Apocalypse World move, this time from the GM/MC side: "Offer them an opportunity, with or without a cost."

Also, the other way around: The GM will tell you "If you want this thing, here's where you can get it."

(Side note: Taxi service in Al Amarja. Don't forget to give options.)

An aside: Here's the game I want to run, forever
You've got your basic stats, a few of them, something between three or nine. Six is kinda a sweet spot, obviously. It's fairly clear what you should roll. (The bugbear in the room: When do we roll? We need to make a few rules for that.)

Everything else you do or achieve is fiction. Sometimes we mark things on your sheet, so that we don't forget. You get bonuses to stuff obviously. You don't need secondary statistics, evading a fireball is a Dexterity check. You should have a "higher save"? Sure, you get a +4 to Dexterity checks when trying to evade area effects. You're a decent swimmer? +1 to Strength checks that pertain to swimming. We don't need too much of those.

It's who you know, what you know, where you know. Alliances, friendships, connections, resources, money, equipment in-game experience, game experience. You've fought orks before, you know how to fight them better now, you don't need to level up for that. A hammer doesn't give you bonuses to hammering, it allows you to hammer. It's ALL about unlocking game content. (Think about Echo Bazaar.) To do things you need things. You need to know people, you need to go places. The question is "what do you want?" obviously. The GM will tell you "sure". Sometimes he'll say "but...".

That's just the backdrop.

Exploration is king
So we've got our basic rules there, but what the game really consists of is this:

"If you want food, sure, you can go to the fishermen down by the shore or the loony hunter at the back of the village."
"You want to be the best blacksmith in the village? Sure, but...you'll have to somehow prove you're a better blacksmith than Thorm."

But what I'm really interested in is this:

"If you want to learn to speak to the dead, you will need to perform the ritual of Mothrag at the altar back at the ruined temple."
-Where is the ruined temple? "If you want to find the way to the temple, you'll have to either talk to Old Gorm or find Ulmar's map."
--What about Old Gorm? "If you want Old Gorm to tell you about the temple...etc.
-What is the ritual of Mothrag? "If you want to learn the ritual of Mothrag...etc.
Etc. etc. and infinitum. The structure of the GM's job.

You want to learn the Secret Five Fist Palm techique? You'll need to go learn from the Raven Monks. Where are they? In the Raven Temple in the Mountains. To get there you need to organize an expedition. To organize an expedition you'll need...Etc. Etc.

Don't specify everything. Then it becomes stupid pixel bitching. "You didn't do X, so you don't get it." Maybe the character just steals the secret scroll of the sacred technique from the monks, whatever, I don't care.

Point is, players want their characters to do something, get something etc. Characters want something. You tell them sure. And you tell them how to get it. Sometimes you ask for a roll, sometimes you introduce a cost. Infinity.

Everything you get, you get it in the game. You found the hidden altar of Zebraim? Awesome, you can bless your equipment there. You saved the princess from the bandits? You get her protection in the city. You discovered the fortress of the knights of Talum? You can play one of them when you change characters. Screw XP.

Sometimes the characters fail, of course. That's nothing to worry about. Failure is a development, opportunity. Even if the character dies there's still all this world out there that is bigger than him. His story is over, the epic goes on.

Post Scriptum
This ties tangentially into a conversation/semi-argument I had with one of my players about D&D the other day. I was bitching about D&D a bit, and then it got heated until I figured out how to explain myself. Most of my bitching about D&D isn't about mechanics or the game, really. It's about personal aesthetics.

The point of the conversation was that I like the characters to start out weak, with little equipment etc. I don't like them going to Ye Olde Magic Shoppe and stocking out on +1 swords either. I like it when they have to scrounge and think outside the box and cut corners.

Not because I'm a stingy DM (I used to be, for all the wrong reasons, I said NO a lot), I love giving out rewards to my players and their characters. If they find a holy fountain and drink from it I'll give them tokens that give them bonuses. If they get a tattoo from the lizardmen tribe I'll give them a +2 Cha bonus with the lizardmen. If they eat a strange mushroom I will give them +2 Int. At least I want to do that, but it goes against the whole "XP/advancement curve/game balance" thing later editions of D&D have going on.

I want them to think inside the game, inside the game world. I want them to want something in the game, not something out of the book. I want them to get rewarded for things they do in the game, not abstract points outside it.

I want to run a lot of games. Games with hardcore tactical combat. Games with heart-wrenching dark personal drama. Silly games. But when I think fantasy and D&D and "back to the roots" and look what's inside my secret fantasy heart(break), that's what I want.

Post Post Scriptum: A worry (or worries)
-XP is a reward. Games need rewards. Is in-game satisfaction enough? Pure exploration? How long can that last?
-I know first hand that my preoccupations as a player are not the same as the GM. I want this as the GM, would I want it as a player?
-Some players enjoy the character building perspective. The deck-building approach of picking options off lists, buying powers. What about them?
-This works with a stripped-down simple system with a set of core stats. The more stats you add, the more it starts to break and the harder it becomes to run. Games (and gamers) need a degree of complexity, mechanical structure. How long would such a simple system entertain?


  1. So, when we play Red Box D&D, it's pretty much whoever is DMing brings a dungeon, whoever is playing brings their characters. Various treasures and plot hooks end up disappearing because characters die or their players take a break, etc. And DMs don't reincorporate character plot hooks (I am guilty of this myself). It's all rather ad hoc and improvised.

    Like, one player has a fighter. He says this guy's whole village was turned to stone, and he became an adventurer and his sister apprenticed with an alchemist (they were the only villagers not petrified). A couple adventures later, one of the treasures pulled out of the published adventure is a scroll with Stone to Flesh on it. Golden plot moment right? There are no magic-users of high enough level to learn the spell. This character is 5th level now and has a bunch of plot hooks or quests he could pursue, but that depends on the DM designing adventures around those plot hooks. Another player has a 5th level cleric who spends all his money attempting to rebuild this one ruined town.

    So, I'm noticing a rift between the low-level characters who are just doing their best to survive a few dungeons, and characters who have already determined what quests they want to pursue, and are waiting for a DM who is prepared to run those quests for them. And you're right! The Savvyhead workspace rules is a good blueprint.

  2. Gregor!

    I've read this a few times. It's interesting and thought provoking. I think we have similar aesthetics for fantasy play.

    Here's a thing I think might be missing from your analysis:

    Systems shape the fiction of the game. The reason every move in Apocalypse World is different, the reason they're not all like The Savvyhead Workspace, like Act Under Fire, or like Seduce and Manipulate (each of which can be a perfectly complete conflict resolution system on its own), is that each moves calls for the players to describe slightly different, very specific stuff. That stuff is what makes the game.

  3. @Johnstone (that's you, right? I can't tell): Yeah, I'd like to see the Savvyhead's workspace rules extended to a on-the-fly tool that you can run the whole game with as long as the players are telling you what they want.

    @Simon: I did express my worry about the lack of a more complex system, but you know, with six stats and rules for when to roll those stats, plus a few "tags" for those stats (for example: "Dwarves get a +2 bonus when they roll their Constitution to resist a magic attack.") that are almost-Moves, I think it could work. It worked and still works for all the people who still play oD&D, right?

    But this system-lightness is just a personal thing, a matter of taste to me. What I consider the crux of this post is having a framework that helps you:
    -give the players what they want
    -while at the same time building the whole game(world) out of it

    If you want to be a Necromancer, you don't look in the book and check out the perequisites, grind XP and then buy the advancements. Instead you tell the GM and he tells you what rituals you'll need to perform, what mystic artifacts you need to find, who you'll need to talk to, who to learn from...instant adventure.

    The rest of the system would need to leverage player agency, desires, character motivations as well as provide and resolve adversity in fun ways.

  4. Oh, P.S.:
    Johnstone, regarding the "rift between the low-level characters who are just doing their best to survive a few dungeons, and characters who have already determined what quests they want to pursue, and are waiting for a DM who is prepared to run those quests for them."

    I think there are ways around this. You could have your initial setup done in a way that ingrains the characters into the world and community from the start. Wasn't that what the old multi-page character backgrounds we used to write were for anyway (except we didn't know how to use them efficiently, because we were noobs). Have a character creation system that gives you passionate personages that are part of their world.

    Otherwise, you can just crawl a few dungeons first, yeah. "A game that builds chracter." as you wrote. I'm ok with that, too. Break out this "quest builder" after the characters have grown and the players know what they want.

  5. Yes, I'm Johnstone. The other guy posts as himself.

    I just wrote a generic list-style quest-builder for you. And by you I mean me.

    See what you think: http://redboxvancouver.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/designing-quests/

  6. Hi Gregor,

    It does work in OD&D, but the tradeoff is the amount of work the GM has to do. OD&D is heavily reliant on a GM with a strong coherant vision and the ability to express that through creative use of the rules. Contrast that with Apocalypse World where the MC is relatively hands-off in terms of provoking engaging fiction from the players.

    In other words, what concrete tools can you give me to help me come up with provocative and interesting lists of things people need to do?

  7. @Johnstone, that looks great as an between-sessions tool, but I'd also love something that's usable on the fly. Working on some stuff now.

    @Simon, I think my answer is twofold.
    First paragraph: well, what if I'm not interested in explicitly provoking engaging fiction from the players, what if I'm interested in a strong GM vision? Apocalypse World is one kind of game, this is another.

    Second paragraph: Well, isn't that what I'm doing? Trying to give a tool for what is traditionally unstructured? As Vincent once said: I can't tell you, but I can design a game to show you and the point at it and go "Uuuuh! Uuuh!".

    Sadly, I have not yet designed that game, but I can point to some tech from other games. The savvyhead's workspace is obviously the main one. Moves in general as a blueprint. Storming the Wizard's Tower? That whole game. Related: Oracles, old school random tables, leading questions.

    It would help if we could just play.

  8. Dude, you are seriously speaking my language here. I'm working on a game in this space right now, and it's great to see the style articulated so well. Thanks for writing this.

  9. John: Funny, because while I think this was one of my finer posts content-wise, I also think it's horribly inarticulate and poorly written (I was just typing thoughts as they came).

  10. You rules have an interesting connection to the Classic Marvel FASERIP inventing rules. Maybe check them out.

  11. Thanks, I'll have to dig that out.

    Also, I just realized I misspelled your name in the original post. Fixed.