Tuesday, November 24, 2015

PUG’BUTTAH: Pick-Up-Games Powered by the Apocalypse

This is a simple framework for handling pick-up games or on-the-fly campaigns 'Powered by the Apocalypse.' In several ways this whole concept goes against the strengths of PbtA. The best adaptations brilliantly emulate a genre (World Wide Wrestling, Monsterhearts). They tune into that play. And generic approaches can feel colorless and ill-suited to some things. I say that as a person who has played lots of generic games (GURPS, Hero, Fate, BRP, etc).

So why do this? For one thing, I have a lot of game frame ideas. I think they’ll work, and I could spend a lot of time building all of the structures. I’ve done that many times before. But I don’t want to waste a lot of energy. If we say “hey, let’s do this,” I want to do it then, not spend days building or rewriting another game it to fit. For another thing, I have people I enjoy playing with who don’t like my go-to pick up game: Fate. That’s cool. They usually have at least a passing familiarity with PbtA mechanics, so I'll use that. Finally I want something easy to run online.

Note that this is influenced by some of the other stripped down PbtA versions like World of Dungeons and Simple World

I want these rules to allow a GM to set things up quickly. Throw down a simple character sheet, drop a reference page, establish some facts, and easily get to playing a one-shot. But more importantly I want this to handle short campaigns with emergent play.  In Pug'buttah you can come up with a campaign concept, build characters, start playing, and have rules evolve over time.

A few years ago, we played a campaign called "Last Fleet." We did collaborative world creation, and I knew we were going to use our homebrew card system as the basis. But I decided not to write up any new modules and rules. Instead I asked the players what they wanted to be able to do: i.e. what cool stunts, powers, feats, etc. they wanted. From that I built each character a set of abilities. I put these on cards, and they could buy them as they wanted. Some had prerequisites, so a structure developed. I checked with them every couple of sessions to ask what new abilities they wanted. The pricing system meant they could never buy everything and had to make hard choices.

Effectively we built talent trees on the fly for individual characters. That’s what improvements are going to look like here as well. It may work even better with this, since GM Moves make the work even lighter.

These discussions assume you’re somewhat familiar with how PbtA games work. Also, as you may have noticed, I use GM in place of MC. Once again I stomp on the spirit of things. But that term's pure habit for me.

In the discussion below I’ll be using names for things like Moves, Stats, and Improvements. Consider these placeholders. One of the easiest ways to establish the genre feel is provide genre appropriate names. Overelaborate terms for Steampunk, with a drawl for a Western, or sharp and edgy for Cyberpunk. This can be a point of collaboration for the group.

This game begins with a conversation about what the group wants to play. I’m going to assume that you’ve generally established the premise or genre beforehand. Here you want to talk about the expectations for the game. In particular, talk about what characters do in this kind of game. What sorts of things happen and what narrative focuses on. That’s important even if you’ve defined what seems to be a commonly shared concept. Genre can be dangerous, with players owning different senses of it. You might say "Paranormal Romance," and have one player come at it from a Buffy PoV while another's thinking True Blood.

Make a list of activities and consider what typical heroes have as goals.

For example in a Star Wars game: Fly Spaceships, Dogfight, Evade capture, Use the Force, Deal with Troops, Overcome the Odds, Swashbuckle, Struggle with Darkness, Draw on Inner Strength.

Or let’s say an X-Men game: Use Powers, Deal with Suspicion, Inappropriate Personal Issues, Expose Conspiracy, Mutate, Avoid Detection, Protect Innocents, Retcon Backstory.

Or Lord of the Rings: Travel the Wilds, Evade Pursuit, Overcome Animosities, Go to War, Ancient History, Resist Shadow, Cut through Hordes. 

These should help form a pool of Custom Moves you can create either before the game starts or during play.

Ask if there are things you wish to Ban which usually appear in this kind of setting or Add which don’t normally show up.

I’ll come back to the actual process of character creation, but here’s the basics:
  • Define a character concept
  • Set Stats
  • Pick three Improvements (Moves, Skills, or Stuff)
  • Establish History between characters.

Characters have five or six stats which are used with rolls. The exact composition of the stats depends on the genre involved. Stats have a max of +3; players begin with these values to distribute: -1, 0, +1, +1, +2, +3. If you want more competent characters for a one-shot go with 0, +1, +1, +2, +2, +3. If you’re using five stats, drop a +1.

Some games use five stats, like Monster of the Week (Charm, Cool, Sharp, Tough, Weird) or base AW (Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird). These are useful set ups for groups highly familiar with the system. For purposes of explanation, I’ll use Charm, Cool, Sharp, Tough, and Weird as the default terms. Understand they represent a concept, rather than a specific stat name.

Other games use six stats include the classic D&D list, useful if you’re doing a fantasy game (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). If you want something more abstract, go with approaches from Fate Accelerated (Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky). I like these because they have a built-in methodology and point to the kinds of complications and costs which can arise from a bad roll.

Consider the focus of the game. If you think play with center on investigation and figuring things out, you’ll want two kinds of Intelligence stats. For investigation games, split “Sharp” into Knowledge and Perception/Observation/Wits. 

If you think it will rely on social manipulation, then you’ll want to split out charm. For a social game, split into Charm and Presence, representing soft and hard approaches. Alternately, consider Charm and Pull, with the latter covering favors, connections, and networks.

If you think it will lean on combat, you’ll want to break up physical traits. For action oriented games, retool “Cool” and “Tough” into split physical stats like Strength, Agility, and Toughness.

This is a decision the GM will probably want to sketch out before sitting down with the group to plan the game.

I’ll be using the following terms mostly as they appear in other versions. Forward +X: Add that to your next related action. So in combat, usually another attack or escape. After uncovering info, a bonus to an action using those details. In some cases, what I’m calling “Set Up”, you can pass that bonus wholly or in part to another character. Hold X is a currency, spent to achieve an effect, ask a question, or gain a benefit. Hold may decay over time. Ongoing +X: a bonus to rolls for that character for the rest of the scene (or until something major changes).

These moves cover a lot of ground. Distinctions occur in how the action’s described, the actual situation, and the stat called for. For example trying to read a person through conversation might be rolled with +Charm instead of +Sharp. Indirectly trying to bring someone’s organization down might be rolled with +Sharp or +Charm, instead of +Tough.

Principle: When you do something, you roll the relevant Move with a stat appropriate to the situation.

Principle: Give the player a chance to say and justify why a particular stat fits. 

Roll this when you talk and engage with a person or group in an attempt to gain something. Gain an ally, create a strongly favorable impression, instill jealousy, obtain a favor, fool them about a fact, get them to give you something, arrange for support, and so on

10+ You move attitudes sharply towards what you want. That may…
…establish a significant fictional change
…make the person or group do as you wish for a general effect
…create a debt for later use (Special Hold)
…have them immediately assist with something (+2 Forward or +1 Ongoing)
…“Set Up” something (+2 Hold).

7-9 You move attitudes slightly towards what you want, but greater results come with a catch, complication, or cost.

Attitude shifting and relationship building require time or leverage. Persuasion always requires leverage or a debt of some kind, which may be spent by the transaction. Note that this covers PCs acting on NPCs. The group will have to decide how and in what way Interaction skills can be used on other players.

Roll this when you’re engaged in a conflict and attempting to deal Harm. This assumes an active and dangerous opponent. When you fight, you take 1 Harm unless you negate that through an effect pick. You also deal your base Harm (see Harm and Damage below). Fights don’t have to be physical, they could be political struggles, debates, or a hacker clashing with a system. In these cases, the GM will establish special Harm tracks, as well as damage/armor for the event.

10+ Deal take/standard harm and pick three effects

7-9 Deal take/standard harm and pick one effect
…deal extra Harm (may be taken multiple times)
…gain +1 Forward for yourself or another (Set Up)
…take no Harm
…Change State/Position

What about Shooting? If you’re under no threat—no one nearby to affect you and no shooting enemies—the GM may say you take no harm. (Note: Should that reduce picks?) Alternately they may say it isn’t really a Move and simply have the player deal Harm.

Roll this when you want to learn something. This can be doing research, hitting the streets, looking around, sensing danger, considering your own experiences. General information should be obtainable without a Move. But if someone wants to use their expertise to discern something they make this roll.

10+ Gain 2 Hold to spend on questions. Take +1 Forward for an action based on that information. This may be passed to another
7-9 Gain 1 Hold to spend on questions.

Each Hold spent allows the player to ask a single question. The GM should answer this clearly and directly, allowing for some follow up and clarification.

What kinds of questions can be asked? Usually the Who, What, Where, When, and How of things. That sounds broad, but this covers a large range. What they can ask is only limited by the fiction of their character and how they’ve narrated their discovery process.

Players and GMs may have to walk through the process and limits. In my experience, players tend to go less meta than I expect (or would allow). If unclear, GMs may ask players to explain how they would learn something and permit them to reframe if necessary.
Specialty knowledge and discovery processes with added benefits make great Custom Moves (see later).

Roll when you’re acting directly to do something. That means most everything else not covered by the previous three moves. Your opposition may be active or passive. Trying to avoid a landslide, hacking a computer terminal, repairing an engine, training horses, organizing your troops, putting out a fire, leaping a crevice.

10+ You succeed in your attempt.

7-9 You succeed, but at a cost or with a complication.

In order to use this move, the character must be able to perform the action. So a normal person can’t flip a loaded semi-truck. An untrained person can’t perform brain surgery. A human can’t survive in the vacuum of space for hours, you can’t write the great Russian novel in an afternoon. Logic and drama should equally be your guide. Define success clearly. In some cases, succeeding may simply be mitigating or stalling.

Sometimes the Act moves involves aiding or setting up another person. In this case mechanical success confers a +2 Forward for that person. The cost on 7-9 may include getting more deeply caught up with the results of the other character’s action.

How you handle Harm depends on the genre and tone you’re going for. I’m going to present a simple version, but then I’ll talk about some other approaches.
  • Characters have seven boxes of Harm they can take.
  • Most attacks do 1 Harm. However strong and more potent attacks do +1 Harm. These are usually bigger, bulky, or non-concealable weapons.
  • Heavy armor can be worn, but this is also bulky and hard to hide. It reduces damage by 1.
  • Character are taken out when they have no Harm left. Circumstances determine what happens next. If they can be treated, they can wake up after a scene. Harm clears after a scene of recovery.
  • A character may reduce any damage taken down to 1 Harm, by taking the condition “Injured.” An injured character needs hospitalization and is open to GM Moves playing on how messed up they are. If an Injured character is taken to no Harm left, they’re taken out and Crippled.
Crippling either reduces the rating of a stat or puts a cap on one of the four basic Moves, meaning they can never get above a 9. The GM and player can negotiate what this means.
If you want more detail, create a weapon/attack list with weapons doing 1-4 Harm. Weapons may have narrative tags which the GM can use for complications and the player can use for narration (i.e. “Reach” for a Halberd, “Unwieldy” for a minigun). In this case, you’ll also want to have several degrees of Armor, say 1-3. Depending on how brutal you want that, you’ll want to increase the amount of Harm characters have.

At the start of the game players begin with three improvements. They can decide these at the start or in play. During play, players tick off advancement boxes. Every five advancement boxes they gain an improvement. Generally players should be moving at close to the same rate. If the group doesn’t want to track things, then the GM simply tells the group to take an Improvement after significant sessions.

Tick an advancement box when the following happens:
  • You botch a significant roll, 6 or less, which has serious consequences. This is a learning experience. You can do this up to three times per session.
  • Each player should write down a) a character cool moment they want to see happen and b) something their character’s really reluctant to do. When you do either of these, mark a tick and cross it out. At the end of the session, come up with a new one for each crossed out element.
  • If you come up with a new, non-character specific, setting-appropriate Custom Move for the game which everyone likes, mark a tick.
  • History use require it (see below)
  • The GM tells you to.

Players can create one of three things when they gain an Improvement: a Custom Move, a Skill, or Stuff.

On Terminology: I know Moves usually refer to a wide class of abilities in PbtA. In this case, I’m using the term Move to refer to the roll 2d6 +Stat structures. I know that’s an artless distinction, but everything about this is heavy-handed. The same with the term “Skill.” PbtA studiously avoids that. I’m using it because it has a fairly clear definition.

Custom Moves
Players can come up with Custom Moves. These follow the usual 10+ succeeds; 7-9 succeeds with cost formula. The player and GM work together to define the stakes, range, and limits of these moves. They should be cool and fit with the character’s concept. Sometimes the player may come up with a Custom Move that seems to fit the genre broadly, rather than being tied to a specific archetype. If so, add that to the general pool of moves, mark an advancement tick, and come up with another move.

Note: Players can come up with Custom Moves for themselves, others, or the group as a whole at any time. Write them down if everyone likes them (and take an advancement tick). General Custom Moves become available immediately, others have to be taken as Improvements.  

Variant Moves
As you can see above, the four basic moves cover a good deal of territory. These can be used as the basis for a character’s custom move. The general rule is that if the custom move covers a narrower range, the player may have the success create greater effect.

If your character’s good at doing something specific, you gain a +1 doing it. This should be a narrow range. Driving a car, climbing, surviving a hostile environment, spaceship gunnery. Skills never stack.

This is the “everything else.” It can be anything that a) isn’t a rolled move or b) isn’t a flat bonus to a narrow activity. It might be additional Harm or Armor, if you want to go down the combat route. It could be a gang of henchpersons you can send out to do things. It could be robotic legs which change the fiction of your character, allowing them to make crazier act moves. It could be owning a spaceship. It could be super-powers.

If something’s pretty potent, it should have a limit. It takes a Move check to use, always creates a costs, can only be used once per session, etc.

Advanced Moves
Monster of the Week has “advanced moves.” These give a special bonus for a roll of 12+ on a basic move. That’s an option, but should still have a defined range. For example, if I’m a Gun-Bunny, I might get a special bonus when I roll a 12+ while making a Fight move with my guns.

Emergent Play and Outright Theft
Go look at other PbtA rules and steal from those. Borrow, reframe, and modify bits from other games that work. The key concept is that the rules evolve just as the characters do.

Putting the Weight on the GM
If the GM’s comfortable with it, early on they may come up with the Improvements. Ask each play what they’d like their character to be better able to do better. Make them prioritize. Come back the next session with three things for each player: a Custom Move, a Skill, and a Stuff. This takes some work. You can usually build up a nice backlog early on, and later have the players come up with more of this once they’ve seen how it works.

At the start of the game, each player should establish a Positive and a Conflicted relationship with other players. Mark down +1 History with each of these characters. Positive relationships mean good feelings, background of assistance, infatuation, whatever. Conflicted relationships mean jealousy, hidden resentments, and past unforgotten slights.

During play, when you sacrifice (an action, a resource, an opportunity) to aid another character they add +1 to their History with you. The maximum a History can be is +3. If you ask a favor of someone else and they refuse, reduce your History with them by 1.

When you “Set Up” another character, you may roll your History with them instead of another stat. This reduces the History stat by 1 (and doesn’t increase the other person’s History). If this is the person you have a conflicted relationship with, you may reduce the History to 0 and gain an improvement tick.

Players may “burn” their History with someone if they have a +3. This may be done after roll is made and resets the History to 0. Describe how the player you have the History with is suddenly assisting you or intervening. The other player may agree, in which case you bump the success up one level Fail to Partial, Partial to Full. If they disagree, you gain no bonus, but may tick an Improvement box.

Note: This is the roughest part in my mind. No sure about how I want to handle this. May well depend on the genre more.

In addition to the usual options, gamemasters should follow these principles:

Negotiate Moves: When players suggest new Custom Moves, either for themselves or for the group, work with them. Get agreement about the appropriateness of it. Define the limits and successes. Be open to the possibilities. Once a Move has been created, accept that as part of the fiction.

Develop Improvements: If you’re building the improvements for the players, listen to what they want. Work to come up with clever versions. If players ask for something large, consider breaking it up into chunks. Provide hard choices: good things on both sides they’ll have a hard time deciding between. If a player’s identity changes through play, develop for that new identity, not the old one.

Protect Niche: When developing Improvements, make sure that new additions don’t invalidate earlier ones. Talk with players about what they see as their identity and try to support that.

Focus on Theme: Come up with game concepts related to the theme and actions, AS THE PLAYERS DEFINED IT. Often you’ll come up with Custom Moves which are mostly a reskinning of the Basic Moves. Why do this? Why not just use those? Because it adds to the flavor and feeling. At the same time, if you’ve come up with a Custom Move and players forget it repeatedly, talk about cutting it. 

Pick Appropriate Stats: Use the choices of stats in combination with the basic Moves to create flavor. Consider the players intent and description. 

Consider Balance: Don’t worry about balance. EXCEPT if a player or players seem bothered by the ease with which another player gets to do awesome things. Listen for those grumbles. Sometimes, it’s because a player has accidentally or deliberately built a character which doesn’t work in the context. They may be perversely stick with that conception. Engage them about that. Other times it’s because something’s broken. In this case, work to make other people cooler, rather than nerfing. That’s usually awful advice, but we’re talking about a short-term campaign. Who cares?

A New GM Move:
Introduce Custom Move: Just like the players, you may see a new custom Move which fits with the genre. Sketch it out and see what the players think. Discard if there’s no agreement.

Need to think about this part more. As I’ve sketched it here, this seems like something for a short term campaign. A true pick-up game might require more sketched out options (improvements) for players to pick from at the start. Have to narrow the choices to make entry easy.

Thoughts? Changes? Suggestions? Things I Missed?