Monday Lab 1: Engine Rev

It’s given: “Powered by the Apocalypse” is an effective brand, and “Apocalypse Engine” is common usage for a presumed mechanics base. I’m not challenging either of these. I’m investigating what they may mean, and whether meanings differ.

This is the first formal seminar activity for the new structuring of Adept Play. The activity was announced for patrons-only at my Patreon, where I provided the topic, the starting requirement (in this case to bring a PbtA game that isn’t Apocalypse World), and the Discord link. All patrons are eligible and don’t have to sign up or formalize their participation, just show up.

In attendance (games in hand) were Ángel García Jiménez (The Watch), Gordon Landis (Sagas of the Icelanders), Herman Duyker (Dungeon World), Santiago Verón (Monsterhearts), and Ross Hunter (Masks). The Discord venue holds up to 9 participants, so I guess if it runs over some day I’ll schedule a follow-up for the overflow.

Part 1: Loosening up with a brief comparison of attributes.

Part 2: Examining the spectrum of fictional content from (i) Required and fixed to (ii) Optional and open (see the attached file), per title. Note that “setting” is a very flexible term in this context.

3. Examining the two levels of change that I identify using Apocalypse World: improvement of any kind vs. transformation of a character, the setting, or the story. Note that not all advanced Moves are necessarily the latter, nor is criss-crossing skins necessarily the latter.

Part 4: Comparing each game’s overall story/arc/saga, including if there is any, in terms of both structure and emergence, and in terms of where the primary adversity comes from.

The point I’d like to follow up with here in the comments is this: in designing a PbtA game, the power will be found in the second level of Part 3 above, and secondarily perhaps in the meaning of 7-9 in the rolls, not in the parsing of skins or the elaborations of the Moves. Without that power, your game is a 2d6 resolution roll and a bunch of character classes, which is fine I guess, but has no “PbtA” in it, but only a label on it for marketing purposes.

Inevitably the question came up about Moves as a distinctive design feature. I’ve made my point in the past that they are superior pedagogy but not a distinctive technique, and please let Vincent respond to that (as I invited in the video) in the comments.

I’d also love to see the comments full of other eligible titles, adding them to the comparisons in the video. In a big way, this seminar isn’t over!

The Discord venue works pretty well, and I’ll be using it from now, but this event shows all the ways things can go wonky with sound and connections. We even lose the visual just before the end. The good news is that I’ve been training in all the ways to do it right and all the coming videos will be a jump-up in quality.


21 responses to “Monday Lab 1: Engine Rev”

  1. “What do you play this game to find out?”

    Just a couple of quick observations for now! Here's number 1.

    To me the crucial organizing question is, "what do you play this game to find out?" That's the question that makes sense of what's fixed vs what's variable, what you establish up-front vs what you change over play, and what you just change vs what you transform. In the discussion, I can see you all kind of grasping toward it.

    In Apocalypse World, you play to find out what the PCs make of their world – both what they want to make of it, and what they can make of it. I think you can probably see, Ron, that understanding what went wrong in the world, laying bare the world's psychic maelstrom, might be the key to this, or it might not at all, depending on the details of the answers and how they emerge in play. Same with retiring characters, same with transforming them.

    Anyhow I think that examining each of these games explicitly for what you play to find out would shed a lot of light on them. It's how I understand (and agree with) your followup point above, for instance.

    • At the risk of being a bit

      At the risk of being a bit mean … well, I think some of the games fall flat when confronted with that question, and just lie there. They remind me of GURPS sourcebooks – the same as the canned coffee-table books that summarize a given franchise, a perfectly fine catalogued summary of what you'd find out from reading or watching the damn thing anyway, in encyclopedic format and given various numbers. No matter how well-phrased the descriptions of the skins may be via their lists, or how cool and source-material faithful the Moves may be – it's all merely reminding you of something else that was compelling.

      I don't know if a given PbtA game requires specific developed structure at an "as play proceeds" level in order to gain that power. Monsterhearts and World Wide Wrestling are reliably … what's the word, vibrant, responsive, playable – to me regarding the possible answers to that question, due to the structure there. Apocalypse World itself doesn't have much, but I find it compelling due to the explicit quality of the Maelstrom question and its direct relation to the mechanics (again, Mr. Hocus talking here).

      There's a qualitative aspect to these changes that I'm confident about through experience but find it hard to reference in terms of public discussion. The wrestlers, for instance. Keeping in mind that each one is mainly known and played as a persona rather than a person, varying by concept in this regard so that certain ones may never reveal the actual person and others bleed between real/showbiz by definition … OK, once you get that, and recognize that the rises and falls in Heat are fun but not super-crazy important, then what matters becomes the implicit stress on the almost or mostly invisible real person who's "being" this wrestler as a career. All of a sudden the Golden Boy or the Hardcore is living this role they play, a lot, married to it – the more so as the franchise grows in reach and finances, the more so as he or she grabs hold of the season-scripting studio power, the more so as the relationships among the wrestlers become more elaborate and operatic, the more so as he or she gets Legendary Moves. It's not a game any more at that point, and even if we never ever see (for instance) what Bruto the Legendary Hardcore* does at dinner with his family in entirely off-profession or off-camera life, or if he has a family outside of the scripted skits he does as part of the show … that all becomes poignant.

      * Yes, this was my guy. Ambiguously Mexican-American Californian with bleached-blonde dyed hair. Lightning stripe on tighty-pants, no other outfit.

      I'm saying, if you play to find out (for instance) what skin I choose to have Brother Bat dip into upon getting his Advanced Move, and thus what "power" he acquires that was barred to him at the outset of play, then big deal. That's not "finding out" in the sense you mean, I think.

  2. Moves are neato…

    …But instead of going into it, let me just register my disagreement to your point about their distinctiveness, agree that this is a side point to the current discussion, and say that I'm looking forward to digging into them when the time comes.

    • I ought to bug Jason D about

      I ought to bug Jason D about getting his extensive Apocalypse …. what, exegesis maybe, into a form that could be included here as a seminar topic.

    • I agree with Vincent, here.

      I agree with Vincent, here. Saying that moves serve a mostly pedagogical function seems to be a rather limited view of the technique's impact on gameplay. It seems to me that the "move" construction does a number of things which are quite distinctive, procedurally.

      I also look forward to the eventual discussion of this point!

  3. Outlier Games

    And my last quick observation is that these games all stick awfully close to Apocalypse World in form. When I can steal the time I'll try to bring an outlier into the discussion, probably my Sundered Land games.

    • With all due respect, and
      With all due respect, and please disregard this as need be, but if by any chance it’s all the same to you, could it be Murderous Ghosts instead? My totally selfish, unrelated reason is that I’m preparing to play it for the first time.

  4. what do you play to find out in The Watch?

    After doing some post-processing of the talk, reading Vincent and Ron's comments and finally playing The Watch by myself, I've come to a more clear understanding of the "what do you play to find out in this game?" for this game. Which proves again that nothing beats Actual Play when it comes to understanding an RPG.

    I've realised there's another thing that is fixed in The Watch and that I forgot to mention: You will defeat the shadow and vanquish it from the land. If you keep playing the game, eventually you will win the war.

    In view of this and having played a very significant session of The Watch, I realized that what you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you to defeat The Shadow. Your hope?, your bonds with other people? your loyalty? your very own life?

    This is showcased in the way the fight against The Shadow affects you, both directly during the missions and indirectly through the interpersonal conflict caused by the pressure it puts on people. Which in mechanical terms is represented through the Jaded and Weariness mechanics. And how the only way to keep them at bay is through self-care and emotional support among the characters (which is also mechanized in a few ways). All of this being part of the Non-Fixed part of the game.

    I was quite happy when I realized this by myself. Then I saw something I had overlooked in the text of the game (bold text is mine):

    "That the Watch will defeat the Shadow is never in question. What you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you. On the day of the Shadow’s final defeat, who is it that you will say should have been standing beside you? Which of you will burn bright and fast, and which of you will hunker down and see this thing through to the end?"

    – The Watch by Anna Kreider & Andrew Medeiros, page 143

    So yeah, it says it right there in the game pretty clearly and unambiguously. Now I feel dumb I didn't see this before. But it was a good exercise working it out by myself and then getting the confirmation that I was right. So I'm pretty glad all in all.

    Anyway, I think the Seminar paid off for me and now I'm much more clear in how analysing the things that are fixed in the game and the things that are not helps you to answer the question of "what do you play this game to find out". And also, it confirmed my impression that The Watch is a pretty great game.

  5. Murderous Ghosts

    What do you establish up-front?

    Fixed: You're an urban spelunker exploring the sub-basements of an abandoned factory. There are murderous ghosts here, whom the other player creates and plays. You're "23, brave, athletic, and smart."

    There are no lists to pick from, no numbers to assign, and no randomness before play starts.

    Before play, the ghost player's job is to think up some violent, ghostly imagery to bring into early play. You specifically don't create any ghosts up-front, just daydream some imagery.

    What changes during play?

    You advance through your encounter with the ghost or ghosts. There are 3 stages of the encounter, and for the most part you go through them 1-2-3, although sometimes you might go backward by a step. Progressing through the encounter would be the long-term, transformative change in the game. (If you're looking for these in the books, they're in the MC book, labeled as the "core loops.")

    The stages are (1) there's evidence of violence here, but no ghost; (2) there's a ghost here, but it's not aware of you; and (3) there's a ghost here, and you have its undivided attention.

    In the short term, two things change, kind of turn by turn. First is your position in the current stage of the encounter. Second is your hand of cards. Both of these cycle kind of erratically between safe, dangerous, and bust, out of sync with each other.

    Also, as ghost player, you do inevitably think about the ghost's backstory and make decisions about it. You don't reveal most of it, though; you use it to develop further consistent imagery.

    Some ways that it's like and unlike Apocalypse World:

    There aren't any playbooks at all. The explorer character never improves, advances, or transforms in any way, unless it's by dying.

    There aren't any player-side moves. Instead, the ghost player's the one who chooses and makes moves, and they aren't explicitly named as such. (If you're looking for these in the books, they're the various options listed under "leaving the core loop.")

    Resolution isn't 2d6. It's still 3-tiered, with a safe result, and dangerous result, and a bust result. By using cards instead of dice, it creates a rhythm in the results.

    Is there a maelstrom-equivalent?

    Well… There's this outstanding, demanding question: what is this ghost's history? Why is it here, why is it murderous, what happened, what violence does it represent? How could you resolve the violence that created it so that it finds peace?

    But, and it's a big but, the object of the game is to escape from the ghost unmurdered, and trying to figure out its history and how to lay it to rest is a trap.

    In play, it's not impossible that you'll create and reveal the ghost's history, between you, but it's quite unlikely. By design, either the explorer escapes first, or they're murdered first, and either way there's no cathartic reveal.

    So there it is. I think I've hit every discussion point, did I miss any?

    • The switch-up from one title

      The switch-up from one title to another has thrown me. I know you're talking about Murderous Ghosts because Santiago asked you, but is it still a contribution regarding an Apocalypse outlier, as you see it?

      I don't have any stake in whether it is or isn't, but without knowing that context as you see it, I'm not able to process what you wrote.

    • I know your and Meg’s

      I know your and Meg's position about Powered by the Apocalypse as a term, which I think is very well-conceived (or would if it were any of my business), so this isn't one of those "why it is or isn't" questions.

      I think I'm agreeing with your statement of enemy-status regarding counter-productive assumptions, as well as a genuinely toxic design culture which is totally not your doing. (You didn't mention the term Apocalypse Engine in that post, but it seems implicated; let me know if that's relevant.)

      I referred to the basic problem above, and have been thinking a bit more about it since posting. I'm reminded of the single most horrifying sentence I encountered in all the years of the Forge, when Jesse Burneko mentioned that until recently before posting, he had considered RPG texts to be "mathematical Cliffs' Notes for genre." He had been dedicating considerable effort to shake that viewpoint by diving into primary literature, often finding the source material to be substantially different in plot, theme, characterizations, and even period from what he had "learned," scare quotes very much intended, from studying role-playing sourcebooks instead of doing that in the first place.

      That's what's been happening in a lot of games: source literature or cinema translations into highly codified list-and-action language taken from Apocalypse World (or Fate for that matter), providing nothing for play to do except, basically, "be in" that genre and using those mechanics as mere descriptive language to do so. More GURPS, more FUDGE, Cliffs' Notes for genre in a standardized taxonomic language.

      I've been looking first-hand at a lot of aspiring game designers who have one or both feet in that design culture. Obviously, and especially in a state of success-and-status anxiety, a person finds "Powered by the Apocalypse" to be a very tempting brand to adopt, including its own automatic community or family of popular designers, plus an almost automatic layer of protection against system-based criticism. One might even get the idea that I've been anti-Apocalypse based on what I've been telling them, but that would be mistaken – instead, I'm asking, "Is this game genuinely inspired by Apocalypse World, or are you adopting templates of what you think is a generic system? Is this about marketing and your comfort-in-inclusion zone?"

      I'm bringing it up here because your description of Murderous Ghosts makes me feel OK about saying that, insofar as I did sometimes worry about a conflict-of-interest with you by interfering with the brand's spread.

      The question which you and Meg are automatically excluded from addressing, though, is how thoroughly and perhaps irrecoverably convinced indie-RPG design culture is that this is about a checklist of generic design features, which Murderous Ghosts would fail, and which, worst of all, is all they have to do. There's nothing anyone can do or say about that, "everyone knows" what an Apocalypse game "is," and will exploit that to the hilt for a variety of purposes which unfortunately happen to exclude thoughtful game design and playtesting.


    • Is this the end point of your

      Is this the end point of your analysis of these particular games?

      In the discussion so far, there are already several example games from "the PbtA community" that don't fall into your genre trap. Want me to bring in more? Do you want to talk about the cool shit that people are doing with these games, also, or is this pretty much the limit of your interest?

      (You wouldn't be the only one, and no hard feelings. Also my annoyance is purely personal, not at all a matter of branding or biz, so no sweat on that account.)

    • I’m interested in talking

      I'm interested in talking about the range of games outside the uncritical near orbit. … shoot, that's not quite the right analogy, as for example, Monsterhearts is quite close to Apocalypse World if one is merely counting mechanics rather than considering their functions, and I don't consider it in that orbit.

      Starting again: yes, I'm good with talking about the games you're talking about. I don't want to say or even imply is that you have to prove such games exist. I didn't throw that down as a challenge, and I don't see bringing it up as off-message. So I'm not going to say, "yes, I see, that is PbtA after all," because I don't have a stake in what is or isn't, and I agree that you don't either. My concern is how adopting that label or self-identifier relates to being any good.

      There is no accusation here that Powered by the Apocalypse is nothing but uncritical copying, all hat and no cattle. My message, apparently, is not at all directed either to you in making the term available or to role-players who are designing as they see fit while adopting it. "Some way" meaning any way, whether close in mechanics with few, but precise and positively-shocking tweaks, or more like misting the top of their game's raw gin with Apocalypse World vermouth and calling it a martini.

      The message is rather directed toward everyone else. I just used the phrase "designing as they see fit," which is, way too often, precisely what drops out of the picture when someone says, "I'm designing a game! Based on Marion Zimmer Bradley / The Expanse / Queer as Folk / some other role-playing game / whatever! Powered by the Apocalypse! Here are the skins! Here are the moves!" … in the lack of the strong design features which we agreed about above.

      Why do I care? Because these are usually first-time designers, and they're being socially and procedurally badly-trained, even bullied in an outwardly-supportive, chivvying way. Ivan and I may not have pleased you with our Gnosticism comparison, but entering into those dialogues at Metatopia was a lot like it. Newcomers receive a lot of social attention for saying something like the above, and a lot of interfering direction which points directly toward that uncritical genre-pack summary presentation, and a lot of high-sounding verbiage that ultimately doesn't address play or presentation, only promotes publication. This is not good for them or their games.

      My experiences with the DIY Sorcerer publications, what I (absurdly) called mini-supplements back then, are not the same, but they're relevant here. I think I need to get my thoughts together about that before talking more about it.



    • Cool. When you say “PbtA

      Cool. When you say "PbtA culture" when you mean "Metatopia culture," not only is it confusing, but you're doing their branding work for them.

      I'm done being annoyed! We can move on.

    • Vincent,


      It may be a dumb question, but I'll ask: what in Murderous Ghosts, specifically and from a design-perspective, makes it PbtA to you? I recognize it can be PbtA without any answer to that question, and certainly without an interesting answer, but I guess I'm not afraid to look dumb today …

    • Not dumb to me!
      Not dumb to me!

      What I brought from Apocalypse World into Murderous Ghosts was this thing where it explicitly coordinates prompts, content, and the order and structure of the players’ conversation.

      For example, “what do you hope the ghost doesn’t do? Choose 1 of the following and tell the MC” is exactly how Apocalypse World would handle that situation too.

    • Vincent – That makes sense!

      Vincent – That makes sense! For me, the word explicitly carries a LOT of weight in your explanation, and we could probably talk about/expand/clarify it for quite a while. But I'm not sure that the reward for that would be especially valuable, so maybe just stick with "that makes sense" while pointing at explicitly as a big deal.

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