JEDE1: Fiction First vs Abstract Mechanics

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JEDE1: Fiction First vs Abstract Mechanics
« on: October 28, 2012, 05:20:00 PM »
Johnstone's Eschaton Design Essays #1

The Fiction-First Ethos and Abstract Mechanics

So one of the things I've done in Black Seas of Infinity is make extensive use of advantage and disadvantage (aka 'vantages). Joe Mcdaldno used this concept in Monsterhearts, and it's a lot like aspects in Fate games, or situational modifiers in most any old rpg. The idea is this: if there's a thing in the fiction that helps you or gives you an advantage, you get a +1 to your roll. If there's a thing in the fiction that hinders you or puts you at a disadvantage, you get a -1 to your roll.

This promotes a fiction-first agenda in several ways. First, you get modifiers to your roll based on the fiction and only the fiction. There's no +1forward, no strings, and no other abstract mechanical objects that modify the roll. You also only get a modifier if the specific 'vantage is actually relevant. You need to decide whether a particular skill or training, for example, has relevance to a specific action before you can apply a bonus, so you're always thinking about the fiction and providing more detail.

Second, it promotes reincorporation. Anything you make up after you know you're rolling the dice doesn't count as a 'vantage, only the situation and the elements that have been described up to the point where you describe your character making a move. You need to look back at things that have already been introduced, and consider how they affect the current situation.

Third, the way 'vantages are limited also reinforces the setting. Instead of using a Fate point economy to create the pacing sense of a narrative, or just allowing players to cite elements ad nauseum, I've borrowed the concept of scopes from the VSCA guys (Diaspora), where there's distinct categories of things that can influence a roll, and you can't double-up on advantages or disadvantages in any one category. In Black Seas I use three categories: circumstantial, personal, and technological. That means you can't get more extreme than a +3 bonus or -3 penalty to a roll, and to get that you need a 'vantage in each category. Having two personal advantages, like two skills for example, isn't any better than having one—you still get a +1 bonus. Set up this way, all three categories have equal weight, so that technological advantage is just as important as personal skill. This reinforces the transhumanist science fiction theme that is central to Black Seas of Infinity, and also keeps the time spent searching for die roll bonuses to a minimum.

How this affects resolution:

Using 'vantages this way is supposed to result in instances of mechanical resolution that only consider the fiction, and not earlier instances of mechanics (or at least not without the concrete fictional elements that are attached to them). Diagrammed out it might look like this:
fiction --> mechanical resolution --> fiction.

In Apocalypse World, a roll or a mechanical element that generates a result of, say, +1forward can influence the next resolution roll without ever entering the fiction between them in a concrete sense. It might mean your character feels awesome because he just got laid, and we might even recognize this as players, but the rules don't require any concrete in-fiction statement or description to get that +1. In Black Seas they do.

Granted, there are still stats. When you go to the dice for resolution, you still look down at your character sheet to see how many dice you roll. Currently, there's nothing mandating that number be reflected in the fiction, and I'm not sure there ever will be. Hypothetically, an AW hack could just have you roll 2d6 for every move, and apply modifiers based only on traits you have on your character sheet, equipment you're using, and circumstantial conditions. But stats also communicate genre, divide up areas of expertise and allow for character niches, and allow for levels of effectiveness that bypass the whole process of combing through lists of details looking for ones that apply.

How this affects relationships:

Strings, another mechanic from Monsterhearts, represent a more fluid economy of emotional investment than Apocalypse World's Hx stats, or the bonds in Dungeon World. In a Monsterhearts game, having a string on someone means having a certain amount of power over their emotions and affections. One of the major components of play in this game is the gaining, spending, and losing of strings, which represents the emotional volatility of the teenage protagonists. They're abstract quantifications of emotional power, however. Unlike bonds, they don't come with mandatory and definite fiction. We might describe the moment when the Witch gains a string on the Werewolf by turning her on, but the Witch's player might not remember or reference this when that particular string is spent to manipulate the Werewolf later. And yet we all know, in at least some vague sense, that the Werewolf's heartstrings are taking a beating, just because that string was spent. This is a case of using abstract mechanics to describe the fiction. The same sort of thing happens in D&D: when you take 5 points of damage, we're not usually concerned with any resulting wound—we know you got hurt, but the details are irrelevant. As long as you've still got hit points left, we move on (or maybe you check to see if you're bloodied, if we're playing 4e).

This is more or less exactly what I'm trying to avoid in Black Seas. Or as much as it is possible to do that without ruining the other reasons I have for writing the game. That means quantifications of relationships need to be rooted in concrete pieces of fiction, just like 'vantages are. And so they essentially become advantages, used once and expended (crossed out) like strings are, but each one is a phrase indicating the nature of the relationship, just like bonds. Because each one needs to be written down and actually considered as a piece of fiction, they won't see as much action as strings in Monsterhearts do, but then again, there's also scopes to put a cap on how many 'vantages can apply to a single roll.

To be honest, I'm not sure yet how well this actually works. In World of Algol, I've been using bonds, which you can use as leverage to manipulate other players' characters, or as a limited resource to help or hinder. When you use one to add or subtract from a roll, you mark it, and can't use it until you unmark it, and the rest, in between sessions. You can lose a bond by missing a manipulate roll, betraying someone's loyalty, or wagering it to give someone xp if they do what you want. It's a much more permanent resource than what I'm using for Black Seas, and it's also harder to get them. But then, that's World of Algol—it's supposed to be difficult. And much more of a long-term game than Black Seas of Infinity.

How this affects harm:

In practice, I've found harm in Apocalypse World gets described the same way as strings do (or hit points for that matter): that is, not as a piece of fiction, but as an abstract amalgamation of injuries we're not really concerned with describing. We talk about “x-harm,” but not about the actual injuries. One of the ideas Orlando had for his post-eschaton game was that there are no harm ratings, and that wounds exist solely in the fiction. We have a move for assaulting someone, we have a move for attempting dangerous things that could get you hurt, and we have a move for recovery. What more do you need, right? Within this framework, dealing with wounds doesn't require hit points of any kind: “She shoves the knife deep in your side. Your hands get weak. You hit the ground and you're bleeding like a stuck pig. What do you do?” Then you decide how to deal with this situation, and maybe the MC's judgement determines the outcome, or, if there's a move involved, the dice decide.

One problem with that situation arises out of the fact that it's entirely up to the MC to determine the consequences of injuries and to determine when a character dies. Without any rules allowing the MC to disclaim decision-making, it can be tempting for him to pull punches and be soft-hearted, even in situations where playing tough and dangerous would clearly enhance the fun and not detract from it.

This may not present a problem for some groups, the same way it wasn't a problem when Orlando and I played Ghost/Echo. But having run a fairly grim D&D campaign for several years now, I've noticed that tendency to pull punches increases as guidelines for difficulty levels become less definite and as characters stick around longer. This is why I've chosen to include the injury and stress tracks in Black Seas of Infinity—so the MC can disclaim decision-making and play the opposition in a manner that produces dangerous and tense tactical combats.

The difference between the pre-eschaton and the post-eschaton:

All this isn't to suggest, however, that things should be the same on both sides of the eschaon's victory. The major dilemma of the pre-eschaton game is the price of averting the end of the world, and how characters balance that with their own lives. The ultimate price here is death, of one kind or another, and the ultimate consequence is the end of humanity as we know it.

But in the post-eschaton, the end of humanity as we know it is already inevitable, and we're playing characters as they transition from one point (human) to another (post-human). With this transition, the over-arching goal—prevent the eschaton—becomes impossible and thus irrelevant, and all we have are personal goals. In this case, the ultimate price and the ultimate consequence converge into one: being changed in a way beyond your own control. Either you become the post-human being that you want to become, or you don't. In this case, having the rules determine when death happens really serves no function. It's the MC's job to present obstacles to the players, to give them hard choices, and to push forward the eschaton's agenda. And this is all a matter for the fiction to decide, not the machanics. In the post-eschaton world, neither death nor the tactical maneuvering of resources in the war between humanity and the eschaton mean anything. In the post-eschaton, change is inevitable, and it's up to you to decide what each change means to your character. That's what matters most and what makes it different from the time before.