A PbtA Thought Experiment

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Prelim 1. Otherkind Dice & Assigning “Say”

You may recall that a dice system called Otherkind Dice was the mechanical precursor to Apocalypse World’s moves.

I’ve written a whole piece about Otherkind Dice, laying them out in detail; you can read it here. For purposes of my thought experiment today, though, this is the important passage:

First Say vs Final Say

When we first published Psi*Run, the going fad in indie rpg design was to write rules that assign who has the final say. Psi*Run doesn’t do that; it assigns the first say instead. At the time, a number of people struggled to understand the difference, or didn’t see what having first say would even mean.

If you imagine a group that takes turns choosing movies to watch, games to play, or restaurants for takeout, though, it’s easy:

When someone has first say which restaurant to choose, they make their choice, and if it works for everyone, it stands. Otherwise, it’s the opening of a conversation, and the people who have particular needs, concerns, or wishes otherwise, get to weigh in and help make the group decision. Only when everyone’s on board has the decision been made.

When someone has final say, though, their role is to end the conversation, not open it, and if they choose to ignore someone else’s needs, their choice stands anyway. Once the decision’s been made, the rest of the group has to get on board, or else refuse to.

These rules follow Psi*Run’s convention of assigning first say, and leaving final say to the group, not to any one player.

The style in assigning final say started with the Pool, and followed into some other classics: Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe, InSpectres, Universalis, and more.

For purposes of my thought experiment today, let’s set aside the distinction between final say and Otherkind Dice’s first say, and just examine the idea of assigning say.

One of the lively concerns at the time was, naturally, who should have the say. In the Pool, the rule’s called the “monologue of victory”: if you win your roll, you can choose to take a monologue of victory and seize the say — but otherwise, it remains with the GM.

Other games handled it in a variety of ways:

  • The winner of the roll always has the say.
  • The loser of the roll always has the say.
  • You can spend a resource to buy the say, win or lose.
  • Other circumstances, fictional or mechanical, give you the say, or take it away.

Otherkind Dice’s answer to the question of assigning say is kind of complex, where each risk card assigns the say only for itself. Some of the risk cards give you the say on a high die, and some give you the say on a low die. Some give the same person the say no matter what die you assign. This turns the final, complete outcome into a casual collaboration between the parties: you might have the first say about the effects of your success, but the GM has first say about the injury you suffer in the effort, for instance.

Over the years, Meg and I came to pay close attention to one particular way to assign the say. It was Meg’s default for running lightweight games with kids, for instance. All things equal, it reliably promoted enthusiastic, collaborative play, and kept people engaged through the highs and lows of play. If you’d asked us, we would have recommended it as the simple best choice, for any game that didn’t demand differently:

  • The GM describes your successes, you describe your failures.

Prelim 2. One Analysis of PbtA Moves

Over the past decade plus there have emerged several recurring analyses of PbtA moves. One of them is, the moves determine who gets their way in the game. Earlier today I happened to read it put this way: “[it’s] what I call ‘rolling for narrative control’ and it’s opposed to ‘rolling for success’.” [Brian Ashford on Bluesky, here.]

Put into terms of assigning the say, it’d look like this:

  • On a 10+, the player gets the say.
  • On a 7–9, the player gets the say, but the GM gets to add a wrinkle.
  • On a miss, the GM gets the say.

…Which doesn’t hold across the board, but some moves do work like this and you can see the point for sure. ESPECIALLY if you look at Apocalypse World’s basic moves, which have relatively various hit results, but for all of them, on a miss, be prepared for the worst. The MC has the say.

It works for Apocalypse World, but here’s what’s startling about it: it’s the opposite of Meg’s and my all-things-equal preferred way. Our preference would have been, on a miss, YOU say what goes wrong.

The Thought Experiment

I’m going to take a selection of moves from across my various PbtA games, and rewrite them to suit our old preference: on a miss, you have the say. Let’s see how they turn out!

AW:Burned Over: Confront Someone

When you confront someone, make it clear what you want from them and how far you’re willing to go, and roll+Aggro. On a 10+, they have to choose: defy you to your face and take the consequences, or cave and do what you want. On a 7–9, if they don’t want to obey you or defy you, they can try to stall, make excuses, or pass the buck, but in return you take +1forward against them. On a miss, be prepared for the worst. On a miss, instead say what goes wrong or how you give them an out.

AW:Burned Over: Read a Situation

When you read a charged situation, roll+Sharp. On a 10+, ask the MC 3 questions right now. On a 7–9, ask the MC 1 question. They have to answer frankly, and when you’re acting on their answers, take +1 to any rolls you make.
• Who’s in control here? (How can I tell?)
• What’s my best way in / out / around / through? (What makes me think so?)
• Who or what poses the biggest threat to me? (How can I tell?)
• Who or what represents the best opportunity for me to do [x]? (How can I tell?)
• What should I be on the lookout for? (What makes me think so?)
On a miss, the MC might have you ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.
On a miss, you can ask 1 anyway, but say what goes wrong for you or how you misjudge the situation.

Under Hollow Hills: Open Up to Someone

When you open up to someone, roll. On any hit, you capture their attention and they must hear you out. On a 10+ hit, choose 2 of the following. On a 7–9 hit, choose 1.
• Reveal to them what you’d like them to do. If they accede, offer them a reward or a favor, but if they refuse, you may consider it an insult.
• Reveal to them something you’re considering, and judge their reaction to it. Ask their player what they think; they have to tell you. This can be implicit or explicit, and they may or may not realize what they’ve revealed.
• Offer them something, explicitly or implicitly. If they accept it, they’re beholden to you, in proportion, as you judge it, but if they refuse, you may consider it an insult.
• Confide in them or explain something to them. Tell them what you reveal and ask them how they take it. They must answer honestly.
On a miss, ask the MC or the other player what goes wrong. They might have you choose 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst. Perhaps you’ve made yourself beholden to them.
On a miss, you can choose 1 anyway, but say how you make a mistake or mishandle it. Perhaps you’ve made yourself beholden to them.

The Wolf King’s Son: Resorting to Violence

If you confront someone and they defy you, or if you roll a weak play and don’t like how it turns out, you can choose to resort to violence.
On a strong play of 5 or more, have them choose one of the following for you:
• I gain the upper hand and they flee.
• I gain the upper hand and they submit to my mercy.
• I hurt or frighten them badly and they flee.
• I’m able to hold them off until [X] happens.
On a weak play of 4 or less, mark danger, and they gain the upper hand over you. Ask Say whether they beat you and leave you for dead, take you captive, drive you away, or what.

The Wolf King’s Son: Trusting Your Instincts

When someone or something is out of your control and you decide to throw up your hands and go along with it, or when you decide to plunge ahead without any more planning or reservation, you can trust your instincts to see you through. Roll.
On a strong play of 5 or more, say that you come out of it okay, on your feet and basically safe or basically successful. Ask where you are now and what happened to get you here.
On a weak play of 4 or less, mark danger, and say that you can tell it’s going badly for you. Ask Say where you are and what’s happening when you realize it. You can choose whether to make a different play now, or leave it on the table and trust your instincts again.

The Wolf King’s Son: Lashing Out Suddenly at Someone

When you lash out suddenly at someone, roll. No matter what you roll, you cut, slice, lash, startle, strike, and/or hurt them.
On a strong roll of 5 or more, you surprise and dismay them. Say that they have to choose: retreat and withdraw, back down and try to appease you, or fight back. Ask them which they do.
If they try to appease you, mark mistrust.
On a weak roll of 4 or less, you lash out at them, but they can keep calm and self-possessed. Ask Say whether they stand their ground, back down with dignity, push you without fighting back, fight back, or what.

The Demon Tree: Get to Work

When you get to work, tell the GM what you’re trying to do and how you’re going about it. Ask them what you can accomplish on a 10+ hit and what you can accomplish on a 7–9 hit, then roll your Bold. On that hit, that’s what you accomplish. On a miss, ask the GM what goes wrong instead. On a miss, say what goes wrong or what holds you back in your work.

The Demon Tree: Move Into Position

When you try to move into position against an enemy, explain the position you’re trying to get into and how you’re going to get there, then roll your Bold. Tell the GM your roll and ask them how close you can get to your position, or where you get blocked and by what.
Whatever the outcome, on a 10+ hit, you also have an edge.
On a miss, ask the GM what goes wrong instead.
On a miss, say what goes wrong or what keeps you where you are.

The Barbarian’s Bloody Quest: Submit to Circumstances

…Instead of exerting yourself, just trying to come out on your feet.
At the end of this, you’re going to ask your volunteers where you wind up and what state you’re in when you get there, but first roll. On any hits, choose one per hit:
• I keep my feet.
• I keep my bearings.
• I keep my senses.
• I keep my grip.
• I keep my dignity.
• I keep my self-control.
• I keep my self-respect.
• &c as necessary.
Before you choose, you can ask your volunteers just how badly it might go, and make your choices accordingly.
On a miss, choose one, but it’s “I can’t keep…”
Tell your volunteers which you’ve chosen and ask tell them, given that, where you wind up and what state you’re in when you get there.

The Barbarian’s Companion: Exert Your Charm

You may exert your charm to draw someone out or to draw them in. To do this, you need at least a moment with them out of immediate danger, and they must not regard you as their direct enemy. Given this, tell your volunteers that you’re going to charm them, and roll.
On any hits, choose one per hit:
• I find them exciting, maybe dangerous, maybe attractive, maybe enticing. Will they invite me closer?
• I want to laugh, joke, and sport with them. Will they set aside wariness, stuffiness, rigidity, vanity?
• I want to feel safe with them, comfortable in their presence. Will they show themself to be calm, easy, kind?
• I want to know them better. Will they open up to me?
• I want to be myself with them, not put on a show. Will they listen to me with an open heart?
• I want to be alone with them. Will they come where I lead them?
• I find them diverting, for now. What will they do to keep my interest?
• Or another of your own, along the same lines.
Tell your volunteers your choices and ask them what happens.
On a miss, choose 1 anyway, but something distracts you — ask or tell your volunteers what — and they lose the focus of your attention. Ask your volunteers how they take it.
On a miss, choose 1 anyway, but something distracts you — tell your volunteers what — and they lose the focus of your attention. Tell your volunteers how they hold it against you.

The Barbarian’s Companion: Rob Someone

When you spot a likely mark, someone carrying coin or wearing fine ornaments, to rob them, roll. On any hits, you get a number of chances, one chance per hit. A “chance” is something like:
• If the way is crowded enough, I can brush past them as though by accident, and perhaps slip coins from their purse without their notice. Does an opportunity present itself?
• If I catch them unaware, I can rush them, knock them over, simply seize their purse or jewelry and flee with it. Does an opportunity present itself?
• If they’re standing still with their attention occupied, I can slip close to them and cut their purse from their belt, and make an escape before they realize it’s gone. Does an opportunity present itself?
• If I can catch them alone, I can put the edge of a knife to them and demand their wealth. Does an opportunity present itself? Do they fight back?
• I can follow them unobtrusively, and perhaps they’ll lead me to their home, where their greater wealth is to be found. Where do they go? Can I keep with them, or do they make it impossible?
You can invent your own. Take the first chance that pans out for you.
On a miss, or if none of your chances pan out, tell your volunteers that they’re too careful and vigilant and you let them go unrobbed. [No change.]

I could keep going indefinitely! I’m finding it a pretty interesting exercise.


One thing that’s evident to me is that some moves nearly work this way already, especially in the games like The Wolf King’s Son and The Barbarian’s Bloody Quest — games where the player takes more responsibility for their own rules and their own play overall. Replacing “ask or say” with “say” just seems pointless.

In the more traditional games like AW:Burned Over and The Demon Tree, the revised moves read wrong to me, naturally, but suggestive: what must the rest of the game look like, for these moves to be right?

How about you? Any observations?


He / him.

25 thoughts on “A PbtA Thought Experiment”

  • The traditional response to this kind of shift is usually to invoke Paul Czege: it is less fun to be the author of your problems, and also the resolution to them. How does that interact with giving the player first say in failure?

    I think this is a really strong approach and I like the play culture it develops, but I’m worried it feels less… satisfying in play.

    • You could also invoke John Harper on “the line.” It’s interesting to look at which moves would have you say what another character or feature of the environment does, and which would let you frame your miss entirely from within your own character’s perspective.

      Edit: It’s also interesting to notice how scrupulously the original moves all hold the line. For every result, you have the say over your own character, and you ask about other characters.

  • > The GM describes your successes, you describe your failures.

    Is there perhaps more discussion of why this rule seemed to hold true, especially in games with kids?

  • I remember being struck by Trollbabe having your preferred model, “GM narrates your successes, you narrate your failures”. I read somewhere – I forget whether it’s actually in the game text! – that this is so that you never need to feel like your character isn’t badass. If you fail, you can narrate how the circumstances or a super-powerful foe made it impossible to succeed despite your badassery – whereas a GM saying e.g. “you fumble your weapon”, “you trip over your feet” etc. makes your character seem incompetent, and that’s not appropriate here.

    I really like that design! But it does feel wrong for AW – perhaps because the characters aren’t *supposed* to feel like badasses (unlike in Trollbabe)? In AW you want the world to be screwing you over constantly and for you to be barely scraping by – and if you narrate your own failures then it’s too tempting to go easy on yourself, which isn’t appropriate for this game. In answer to your question, *that* is what would have to change for these moves to feel right.

    Following that logic, I guess the “say” should go to someone whose direct interests (e.g. character vision, plot development, etc.) don’t conflict with the big-picture genre interests that the “say” needs to serve.

    • I feel the issue is not even that rules need to resolve or insist upon “competency” – the moves are universal to situations, the context of portraying someone as competency is … well, contextual, and I think even then, an MC can *choose* how to describe things in a way that doesn’t make someone look incompetent or unskilled.

    • There’s a couple key points about Trollbabe people tend to forget.

      Players narrate their own inconvenience and injury. It’s important to remember they have to incorporate those constraints when they narrate. BUT the GM narrates incapacitation by default and the Trollbabe basically gets a saving throw to narrate better circumstances.
      I think that’s rather important. Additionally, if you used a relationship and make that saving throw that relationship dies. If you surrender to the GMs terms they’re only injured. So there’s a lot of pressure around that moment.

      Player narrating setbacks I think is fine but I think the terms of defeat should come from somewhere else. It doesn’t even have to be the GM. I’m running the Blade Runner RPG right now and when you take too much stress you flip out. You roll on a table to find out HOW you flip out. I think it would be less fun to just ask the player, “How do you lose it?” rather then having to work with the constraint the table gives them.

      Since there’s little distinction between setback and defeat in AW I don’t think flipping things is a good idea. In fact, I’d be more comfortable with the 7-9 results being player driven and the 6- GM driven. And don’t a lot of moves already work they way?

  • Sidney’s earlier comment about it being less fun to be the author of your own problems resonates with me, and I’m quite sure it would with my players as well. In addition, with moves that have miss results like “say whether you die, get left for dead, or captured,” giving that sort of agency to the player could make the GM’s already difficult life even harder by having to improve a massive plot change on the spot. (Yes, I know, it’s PbtA, they should *always* be ready to make massive plot changes at any moment, but still, improv can be hard, especially for newer GMs.)

    For me, part of the GM’s job is to make the game fun and challenging (again, going with the assumption that challenge=fun) for everyone. Taking away their ability to narrate on misses pulls a tool out of their box. Their ability to saddle Lucky McChance, who never rolls less than 10, a harder conundrum than Billy Bad-dice when he rolls a miss.

    To me, the easy compromise is that the GM retains the ability to narrate failures, but they’re welcome to pass narrative control at any time. “What do *you* think happens?” Though, maybe I’m side-stepping the point of this exercise?

    • Well, I mean… the GM is “welcome” to pass that narrative control off to a player at any time anyway, right? I think it’s interesting that you frame letting players narrate their failures as taking something away from the GM rather than giving something to the players — that it’s more fun for them to have *less* narrative control when it comes to what could be a life-or-death situation for their character, and indeed that having a say in how they fail is “saddling” them with a burden rather than opening up a creative opportunity for them.

      I’m not sure being cursed with bad dice-luck can really be taken into account in a meaningful way when it comes to game design. “What about the player who always rolls poorly?” is in the same general area as “What if everyone bought their bread from the same bakery on the same day?” It’s definitely a possibility, but you can’t design the system around it. You’d be throwing out unsold bread every day. Or… something. Look, I’m not a baker, and it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

  • Just observations at this point in time.

    Prelim 1. http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/581

    Specifically: “Owning something – a character, a setting element, a situation – means taking responsibility, not holding authority. It means that you portray it, but that you answer to us for your portrayal, not that we accept your portrayal sight unseen as given.”

    Prelim 2. http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/466
Specifically: “As a designer, it’s my job to make as sure as possible that the game won’t break down into moment-to-moment negotiations about raw assent despite the game’s rules and the players’ upfront commitment to them. But the brute assignment of authority is NOT how to accomplish that.”

    Prelim 3. http://lumpley.com/hardcore.html

    “Let’s say that you’re playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he’s a nice guy who’s had a rough time of it. The problem is, there’s something you’re trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won’t get to say what you’re trying to say.

    Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.”

    With these three, I now barf forth:

    In the reformulated moves for AW:Burned Over and The Demon Tree, I jump to the worst possible outcome that could happen during play: The player makes a contribution in response to “what goes wrong” that provokes the groups collective “story brain” into resistance.

    Let’s say, for the sake of this argument, that a player’s response leaves everyone unsatisfied. The compromise to the character’s original vision for their action is not a compromise at all, but a shift in its performance detail.

    Why did this happen? Is the player incapable of both striving for their character’s success and at the same time participate enthusiastically about crafting its difficulty? Is the game lacking in its guidance (maybe in the form of principles for choosing “wrongness”) to help the player accomplish both? No idea!

    But regardless of how it came to happen, I wonder, what happens next? What do we do as a group?

Does anyone say anything to challenge the player’s contribution or do we shrug our shoulders and move on?

    If someone does say something, do we look then at the rules and interpret “say” or “tell” as a confirmation that the player has “final say” and resolve in favor of them?

    Do we engage in negotiations, taking what the player originally said as “first say”?

    And if we go for the third option, what does that say about the actual, real cases, where it is the MC who in fact says what goes wrong? Are those also subject to the same degree of plausible suspicion, with door open for it always being treated as “first say”?

    More and more I wonder what would happen if, at my tables, we started treating the 6- as an MC “first say”. I doubt that it would change most of the conversation about our rolls, but if there are any for which there would be resistance, and someone where to speak up…those are cases I for sure would love to made aware of.

    • Rafael Cupiael says:

      Wow, your comment is fascinating and surprising to me!

      I have long assumed that everything we say at the table is “first say,” unless the text of a given game consciously and purposefully, explicitly assumes otherwise. And even then, at the social level, everything is ultimately “first say.”

      Let’s assume I’m running a conventional PbtA or some proxy of it, in which I am supposed to narrate the character’s failure by default. At my table, it’s obvious that if someone disagrees with my ruling, with a hard move, they can simply say: “Hey, I think this isn’t fair, it doesn’t make sense in the fiction, or it’s too severe a consequence.”

      In such situations, we stop the game, clarify the fiction, and together find a more fitting consequence.

      This happens rarely, and not because I make fantastic consequences (which I do! ha! :), but because I play games where we discuss the stakes before the roll (like with the Risk Roll in Trophy or Day/Night Move in CfB games).

      On the other hand, if someone says: “Oh, I have a super, super idea for the consequences, let XYZ happen!” either after or before I’ve proposed my consequence, depending on the situation:

      A – I totally go for it.
      B – I stick to my own and clearly justify it (if I have reasonable arguments related to clocks, fronts, backstory, anything – depending on the game)

      Almost always, people agree to B, and we move on.
      Sometimes someone will say they really care about their idea because (insert arguments) and if after my previous arguments, someone still feels strongly about wanting their idea, we go with it and that’s it.

      Vincent’s reference to ordering food or choosing a movie is brilliant because it’s exactly that kind of soft negotiation, governed by the norms of the group and principles of social fairness. Of course, such negotiation are also unfortunately subject to informal power dynamics, but you can work on that by developing a group that practices communicating in good faith, naming social tensions, etc.

      Knowing different decision-making practices, like sociocratic consent decision-making (in ultra-simplification, if I have a proposal that achieves a group goal then by default we agree to it if it’s good enough and safe to try for – others’ preferences don’t block it).

      And if someone has valid objections (this proposal breaks our lines and veils, I really don’t want this proposal because my character will lose agency), then you can do Integrated Decision Making, i.e., listen carefully to that objection and integrate satisfying it into the introduction of the earlier idea – e.g., instead of coming up with something new, consider how to still do X BUT while maintaining the agency of character Y.

  • While interesting, I feel like an issue that comes up is that a lot of the authorship of the scenario on the part of the GM or MC in a PbTA *is* driven by failure results, and the circumstances of the fiction that are curated by them/what the players know vs what they know is going on in a scene changes at the drop of a hat by virtue of that failure window (e.g. “you notice the glint of Rolfball’s revolver” on a miss to read a sitch).

    I guess the question here is: how much intentional authorship of the scene do you want the MC to have when you’re designing moves, in terms of what happens on a failure? Because giving the player in question control over the circumstances of failure, or the catch, especially on moves like “read a sitch” strikes me as risking turning the MC into an increasingly reactionary player in the authorship of the scene, or perhaps even the game as a whole when it comes to these sorts of elements of consequence.

    (Not to discredit the ingenuity of any given player, but ultimately, it does affect what “say” the MC has in the direction of a scene when it comes to establishing the consequences of moves.)

  • Maybe this is overly complex for the system, but it makes me wonder if there’s a way to split the say for failures.

    I like the surprise and dread of waiting for the MC to say what happens when I fail, but I do get frustrated as a player when the MC makes unsatisfying assumptions about what my character was prioritizing or paying attention to. I’ve also seen lots of MCs, myself included, get overwhelmed by the options and draw a blank on what “the worst” could actually be–much moreso than on mixed results, where they can go back and forth with the player or bounce off their selections.

    Maybe giving the player the pick of a few general categories of failure, which they can help describe, then let the MC have say on the consequences, now with a little more guidance toward the appropriate hard moves?

    Examples, “say why you hesitated, went too far, or lost track of something important–or ask how you were interrupted”

    An MC facing improv block could then focus in on looking for a missed opportunity or lost advantage for A, an unwelcome consequence of the player’s own action for B, a specific juicy twist or piece of dramatic irony for C, or an outside intervention for D.

  • DarkLavenderVoid, Lav (they) says:

    I usually try to think of theory in ways that go beyond the medium being referred to. I’m thinking beyond GMed games; I’m even thinking beyond TTRPGs into linear storytelling, music, and visual art. The Czege Principle is clearly expressing a complaint with the feeling of lack-of-tension, which a lot of people notice in all art forms, but have different names for. The kind of tension I mean, specifically here, is the tension between multiple potential fictional states that all present a believable chance of becoming committed to the fiction through the table’s unanimous social consent (I’m referring to Lumpley Principle stuff).

    This kind of tension is a mandatory ingredient of “surprise”, because, let’s say you have three equally-likely fictional possibilities, for instance “The Bantraesh aristocracy regain control of their planet through their native social status on Bantral and through Revolutionary support /vs/ The Landowners institute a complete corporate transformation of Bantral’s economy /vs/ The Revolutionaries garner the full support of the populace and push for liberation from all of Bantral’s legal and traditional rightholders” If all three are exclusive possibilities and all three are equally-plausible to occur, then each possibility must have a one-third chance of coming to pass; every possibility looks unlikely compared to the possibility of either of the other two coming true. No matter which possibility actually comes to pass, the other two possibilities have acted as a misdirection, so that when any possibility comes to pass, it ALWAYS FEELS like a surprise.

    You lose all that beautiful tension if you’re making all the narrative decisions yourself without disclaiming decision-making; to review a few of the ways (this is all Apocalypse World): you can give your agency over to your mechanical artifacts, your game’s components, using a system of interpreting the states of those mechanical artifacts (some formalized, like “rolling two 6’s on your dice means your painter character sees a flood of bidders for their work”, some informal/unstated, like “interpret your figurine’s position on the grid as modeling your adventurer character’s relative spatial position on the battlefield”), or you can hand your agency over the fiction over to the fictional world’s internal logic (like character motivations, or the premises of the fictional world). These two ways are just about all you have if you’re designing games for solo-play.

    But one of the most important parts of multi-player TTRPGs is your ability to hand agency over to your friends; they don’t necessarily need to comply to the dice or to the logic of the world so strictly; everything they say will seem surprising because without asking them, you have no way of seeing what they’ll say. THIS THING is what hooks a lot of people to the conventional multi-player TTRPG experience, but it is not the only way to create that feeling of tension-and-surprise.

    I’m not the biggest devotee of breaking out Czege Principle in this discussion because I feel like it BOTH limits a more universal creative principle to the language of TTRPGs, and I feel like I’ve often seen it unfairly weaponized against solo-TTRPGs as a whole genre, when the entire complaint can be resolved by implementing disclaimed decision-making. Then everybody wins.

    I love this conversation, and I love you all! You don’t understand; I’ve waited years to talk about this. Do I need to explain or give examples for anything?

    • DarkLavenderVoid, Lav (they) says:

      This is all to say, in any move, I generally appreciate patterns where you alternate: Agency starts with everything the players have already established in the fiction and mechanics => agency gets handed to a fictional or mechanical entity => agency passes back to another player => the decisions the players have made become established as the new state of the fiction and mechanics and the cycle continues.

      There are a few moves shown in this blog post where the agency of the GM/MC is removed. This can destroy that tension I talked about because now you’re not disclaiming decision-making; you get the narrative control but not the narrative tension. You can have narrative control or narrative tension in moment-to-moment play, but not both in the exact same step of the move.

      My preference is that I like to start a move on narrative tension (disclaim decision making to other players), hand over control to the mechanics/fiction, and then END the move on a position of the player being in narrative control (you make a narrative decision in RESPONSE to what the mechanics/fiction have decided for you), and I prefer that regardless of whether a roll succeeds or fails.

  • Hi,
    I’ve seen it called “them who suffers chooses”. It’s a trust question first. To me, it really depends if the contract is framed as we will not hurt you or we will not let you down or you won’t be hurt. To me it’s obvious players know what will punish their character and what they can stand bleed-wise. So, by default, I’d prefer that the player has first say.
    Having said that, with the gm comes the (pretend) objectivity of reality kicking back and the enhanced feeling by expectation. So the GM “complements” the setback is cool. I think that’s why Sydney said. That’s also a bit like Cordova’s Night Move
    I try to make a case for the other way around but the idea of a player picking the least punishing fictional option for their character just doesn’t click with my experience. Or it would for some youngsters I know, but I wouldn’t want to play that sort of games with them anyway. Or rather I would play these games with these players after a specific workshop or small game of trust, so we can adjust our contracts and let go.
    So, to me at this point, the question of trust takes total precedence on gamefeel. When trust won’t be such a question, we’ll feel it and talk about it in person.

  • Quick reaction – in “the say” (and other places in roleplaying?), we conflate two things – the contribution (always tentative, but not simply dismissable) and the resolution (necessarily provisional, but for-now authoritative). If the rewritten AW: Burned Over moves invited contribution from the player but left room for (maybe) additional contribution from the MC followed by (necessarily) her resolution, would they still feel wrong?

  • This all sounds like a job for some play testing.

    We could speculate about what it would feel like to invert who has say in AW or Demon Tree but a play test with the reversed rules would give a lot.

    If I ever do it I’ll report in! If others do it I’ll read their experiences with great curiosity and interest

  • Hi,
    I guess it would fell more or less wrong to different persons because these feelings are adaptative responses not a mechanic A=>B.
    For game feel, if you expect the GM to present objects of the fictional world that will affect their character’s experience (the line), the moves from AW:Burned Over are sort of broken, or, because players can compensate, they’ll feel wonky.
    They would feel wonky to me, maybe because of other assumptions. The moves would put me on the spot:
    I would have to get into my character experiencial content to “find the hurt”. I need his emotional task to calibrate what I can safely take. Then I need to devise what object could create this experience. Then how to place that object on the battle map. I guess I could develop an adaptative response for this, but seriously? The MC (and all of the other players) are sitting there watching me while my brains fuse. It’s simpler and more efficient that they take that load (or a prompt random table or any other than me).
    Or I could just go with a light idea: my Molotov falls close and cuts me the view. But that’s moot: I don’t want the tactically bad situation. I want the hurt. (This sounds kinky, but it’s just short for “emotional task of experiencing bad stuff”.)
    So it would make the bad consequences less heart wrenching.

  • Interesting! I like the idea.

    I wonder how often this conflicts with each player’s (and Gm’s) narrative skill. I have players who would lock up if asked to describe their failures, and one who will eagerly try to twist every failure into an effective success. That latter is more suited to narrating successes than failures.

    I’m realizing that many story games don’t really teach players how to tell an interesting story; they assume that the players will consistently make narratively interesting choices. (Not saying this is true of AW or any specific game; just in general.) I wonder how games could more effectively teach players about what an interesting failure would be.

  • That’s a feature of AW that a miss is either an MC move or a pick from the list. Never a total hat pull. That’s scaffolding for learning the hat pull (improvisation).
    As I see it, storytelling is having a bag of tricks. Many games teach different tricks. Or maybe, they are good tools for learning and practicing, which is why you say they don’t “teach”. Maybe a question of framing it?

  • It seems to me unsurprising that “more freeformy games being run for kids” defaulted to “on a miss, you get the say” while “post-apocalyptic game of scarcity and brutal hard choices” defaulted to “on a miss, the MC gets the say”.

    The former is low-risk; it encourages openness, fearless creativity, maximal playfulness… and also it assumes that the player will be a fountain of delightfully engaging things to say about what happens to their character, if they are not afraid of the consequences. In other words, it is optimized for a player with high spontaneous natural creativity and low capacity for delayed gratification and self-management of anxiety: that is, a child.

    The latter, on the other hand, makes a roll a high-stakes, edge-of-the-seat, white-knuckle affair: failing is yielding to some unknown badness, passing over to the MC the power to do harm to your character, making yourself vulnerable. It’s perfect for a game where your stomach should drop when your character fails at something. It also means you don’t have to play both sides of “the line”, but having come up with “what I do” you can sit back and enjoy the horrified frisson of the MC deciding “what happens”. It is optimized, in other words, for an adult playing a dark and scary game… someone with the emotional resource and maturity not to have a bad time *as a player* when something bad happens *to their character* without their say — as long as they consciously consented to put their character in that situation, rolled and said, with gleeful horror, “hit me” — and who doesn’t have the limitless, immediate, thoughtless creativity to just roll forward by providing both the question and the answer.

    You could think of Czege and Harper’s rules as accommodations for typical adults, who have trouble just volubly spouting fantastic stories off the tops of their heads, even IF they feel emotionally secure. You could think of “on a miss, you say” as an accommodation for typical kids, who might have a harder time navigating the gap between player and character, and who might get honestly upset if something happens to their imaginary person without their involvement, or might be tempted to play safe to avoid that.

  • Rafael Cupiael says:

    What surprised me the most is that everyone here focused on the second half of the rule “GM narrates success, players narrate failure,” while for me it’s the first part that is more… “problematic” 🙂

    I try to play as much by the book as possible, assuming I’m playing games written within such a culture, and recently, when I ran Psi*Run, it was exceptionally uncomfortable for me to take away from players the opportunity to narrate their successes.

    I’m so used to players being able to take over the fiction, showcase the extraordinariness of their characters, and impress everyone on success, that I felt like I was depriving them of this chance in Psi*Run.

    I’m aware of the First/Final Say, but in this situation, it would mean just ceding the First Say to a player almost every time.

    Narrating failure by players is much less clear-cut for me. I’m totally used to players narrating catastrophic failures, precisely so they have control over how they want to portray their characters and so they can narrate their epilogues (like in the situation of getting a 6 Ruin in Trophy and getting lost in the cursed forest).

    When I run CfB, having players narrate failure would clash with the mechanic of applying Masks, which whole rhythm is that the MC (especially in the Night Move) unfolds before them the drastic consequences of their actions, and they can broadly smile and say: “This doesn’t happen! I put on the Mask of the Past! The Crown of the Mother! etc.”

    I noticed that at my tables, players like to be surprised by consequences, struggle with them, and treat them as problems to solve, but it’s valuable for them to wield the narrative over those key and dramatic failures.

    In some places, players narrate consequences because it makes sense from the perspective of the spotlight or the rhythm of the procedure – like how I understand the combat procedure in Trophy Gold, quick cuts, everyone narrates the fight from their perspective, both successes and stagnations, and taking damage – rapidly chaning spotlight emulate such a skirmish.

    Returning to successes, there also seem to be nuanced, yet unspoken lines – they also overlap a bit with the scope and scale of a given resolution roll, sometimes with Harper’s line, especially for me with the reactions of other NPCs to character successes. So far, we’ve set them very organically, understanding each other as a group, someone narrated a brilliant speech addressed to an undead siren but since the undead sirens was intriguing and mysterious for the group as a concept, he didn’t want to narrate her reaction, wanted to be “suprised” and said: “Hey, you tell me, how does she succumb and agree to our terms?”

    I’ll take a closer look and try to extract those lines at which we naturally toss the narrative ball back and forth. We usually play games with a semi-traditional division of narrative control, like conventional PbtA, trindie Story Games, RiT, CfB, and similar. However, playing a lot in GM-less/full BoB and co-op in Ironsworn, it seems we’ve developed a rhythm of juggling narrative control to make it interesting, dynamic, and to ensure everyone feels heard.

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