Wednesday, 26 October 2011

When Story Games Go Bad

I've given Apocalypse World, and story games in general, quite a bit of love recently. Tonight's session was fun, as always, but we came across an apparent limitation in the system which bears a bit of discussion - namely player versus player conflict. I'll have to go into a bit of detail about an arcane rules point here, but bear with me: it'll be worth it. Maybe.

Anyway, a situation arose in play in which two characters (one of which was mine, as it happens) nearly came to blows, and ended up embroiled in a social conflict of a kind, in which my character was trying to persuade the other to stop pinning him against a wall and the other guy was trying to persuade mine not to do something he deemed foolish. AW has a resolution system comprising a set of "moves", such as "going aggro" or "reading a person", where you roll the dice and successes allow you to either get meta-game knowledge or achieve something in-game - usually with quasi-narrative-control consequences either for you or the GM. This works swimmingly when it comes to NPCs; if (for example) you are "reading a person" your character engages him in conversation and rolls the dice, with a minor success indicating you get to ask a question about the NPC which the GM has to answer truthfully, and a major success indicating you get to ask three. (Failures allow the GM to turn the result around on the player, though we don't need to go into that in detail.)

In the situation described, both players were essentially relying on a seduction/persuade roll. The way this works on an NPC is that your character rolls the dice, with success indicating that the NPC will be persuaded (although only after extracting a promise in return) and failure indicating that he/she will only be persuaded from going against the PC through some sort of significant sacrifice. (I'm simplifying a little.) Fine. But when it comes to PC-on-PC conflict, the mechanism works differently: you roll, and if you get a success you force the other player to choose - they can either be persuaded, in which case they get XP, or they can refuse, which means they have to make a different roll of their own to see if they manage to resist the seduction/persuasion (failure resulting in negative consequences).

All well and good, but there is a subtext, or underlying assumption, to all of this: the players have to be willing to play along. This isn't what happened in our session: I rolled to persuade the other PC to let mine go and succeeded, whereupon he refused and rolled to see if he could do so. Which he did. Whereupon, duly, he rolled to persuade my PC to go along with what he wanted. Whereupon I refused, and rolled to see if I could do so - which I did.

This resulted in a clear impasse, which could technically have gone on for the entire session if we had continued to roll successes, with both of us persuading and resisting back and forth ad infinitum. The system seems to rely on players, at some stage, being willing to sacrifice "winning" for the good of the "story", which cannot be guaranteed. The designers seem not to have realised that, well, lots of people (myself included) are obstinate fuckers who want to get their own way all the time.

We managed to get a resolution through using other mechanisms (the GM forced us to try to "read" each other to work out how our respective characters could be persuaded to back down and reach a compromise, which came good in the end), but there was still something fundamentally unsatisfactory about the whole affair. There is something to be said for the traditional D&D approach, which would simply have involved the two players inhabiting their characters and talking/arguing things through without rolls; if you have to bend the rules and negotiate a compromise anyway, why bother with a mechanism for social conflict in the first place?

Although maybe we were all being too D&D-ish in the first place and conceptualising things in terms of winning/losing, rather than what would turn out to be interesting in narrative terms.

Or, alternatively, maybe we just don't understand the rules properly and somebody is reading this and frothing at the mouth, ready to open the comments and start typing: YOU UTTER MORONS, THIS IS NOT HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS!!!!!!!!!!1


  1. See, the fucking problem with these retarded Story Games is...

    no, just kidding. I got nothing on this one.

  2. I've played and run some AW, and, from my reading of the situation (pun intended), it looks like there was a violation (sounds a bit harsh) of the "to do it, do it" principle. To roll for seduce/manipulate, you actually, in fiction, have to be doing either one, and you have to have concrete leverage. Conceptually, that can't go on forever. If you're manipulating guy with leverage x, then you roll, and it either works or doesn't. Then you go back to talking or fighting things out. It looks like y'all were too quick to roll and that the fictional conditions weren't quite satisfied.

  3. @Zak, Inorite

    I am a conflicted man. I think 'story' games are *awesome* - my personal favorite being FUDGE.

    I just think they are a different thing than D&D?

    What really upsets me is 3e/4e! And that's weird, because I love to play pathfinder, and the 4e boardgames! But they upset me, because, they again, are a different thing than D&D. Maybe?

    I guess it's like this.
    I like to play games
    I prefer to run RPG's.
    I prefer to run 'non-cohesive rule' systems.
    I prefer to play strategic RPG's rather than tactical ones, because the computer does it so much better?
    I like tactical board games.
    I think choices in games should matter.
    There are no contradictions in the above. TALK TO THE OTHER DOOR, HE's THE LI-wait, what?

    Thank you for your confusing post.

  4. My view on this is that social persuasion mechanics of this kind should never ever be applied by PCs to PCs, and in general never used by NPCs on PCs. It speaks to a fundamental issue about having control of your PC.

    In my games I extend this to include charm/dominate type effects, which I only allow PCs to use on each other if the players consent as part of some scenario (e.g. PC1 is enraged magically so PC2 calms him).

    I don't use this type of rule because I think it's somehow purer or better as a rule per se, just because nothing spoils a gaming session quicker than having one player sitting fuming because another player is controlling their PC. It's a one way trip to bullying and serious arguments.

  5. I was the other party to this (my PC was pinning noisms' PC to the wall).

    As a relatively newbie RPG player, it seemed to me that there were good and bad things to the situation. On the one hand, I think that both of us played our characters actions well: noisms' cult leader really did believe that the action he was proposing was a good one (albeit, it would have been one that extended his power base); my character had a mix of things going on, not wanting noisms' PC to get any more influence but more concerned with the potential for badness given what else we knew about the situation.

    I don't think it's a bad thing per se that neither of us were willing to back down: it's what our characters would do. And we were "arguing" at cross purposes as well, noisms' PC wanting me to let him down, and mine wanting noisms' PC to agree not to pursue an incredibly dangerous course of action (from my perspective).

    I think one problem was that the dice didn't force one of us to back down sooner. Maybe that's a strange thing to say, I don't know. But given that from a character point of view neither of us wanted to back down/lose face, it should have reasonably come up sooner as a random thing (I slip and drop him, or he breaks free, there is a noise from outside that we all react to). With modifiers and so on, there was always a greater than 50% chance that we would make a "high hit" (automatic win) and a 1 in 3 chance that we would make a "low hit" which would give some potential negative consequence that we could choose to go along with rather than lose face. There was only a 1 in 12 chance that we would ever "lose".

    Anyway, last night was a great session, and I'm sold on pen and paper RPGs after just four or five sessions.

  6. Real life doesn't really matter, I suppose, but in real life a situation like that doesn't stay static. Either it escalates into violence, or one of the people involved changes their approach. The pinned person might try to break free, or the pinner might let them down but with threats, or anything, really, but they wouldn't just stay in the stand-off forever.

    So I see it as a player issue. Since both players recognised the stand-off, one or the other of you should have changed what you were doing to try and gain the advantage. If I were the DM I would have refused to allow any more rolls after the first set failed, to force the issue. If neither of you did anything, then presumably one of the other players would have intervened. If everybody was being a tit, then your characters would all stand around until some outside event distracted your attention.

  7. noisms & zero_zero_one:

    I'm curious, so a couple of questions:
    Was either of you rolling +Hx to interfere with each other?
    What did you roll to pin him to the wall (was he resisting)?

    +what Daniel said: if you were rolling seduce or manipulate on each other, was it backed up by actual description?

  8. @Gregor:
    Neither of us rolled +Hx to interfere, although another PC rolled +Hx to help me with a persuasion.
    With the pin to the wall I rolled high, and I think from the outcomes got 'frighten/seize hold/take min harm' for which I had to roll cool against a kick in the nuts.
    We were making rolls, but also role-playing the exchanges, i.e., 'We know what happened when someone who understood the tech used this, you're going to get us all killed if you try!'

    At one point I thought, in-game, that it was going to come to a possibly lethal beat-down...

  9. faustusnotes: The rules explicitly assume some level of conflict between players, as it's that sort of game. It's actually something I like about it, and you're never forced to go along with what you're persuaded to do. You just get negative consequences if you act against what somebody has "succesfully" persuaded you to do, if you see what I mean.

    Daniel and Gregor: To clarify, it went something like this. We had discovered this haunted-by-the-psychic-maelstrom machine thing and my character wanted to hook himself up to it because he believed he could use it. Another character thought this would be an incredibly bad idea, so he did a "seize by force" roll to force me against a wall. (Perhaps this should have been "go aggro" in retrospect?)

    Anyway, I then decided that I would try to do a seduce/manipulate roll to persuade that character to let mine go. I roleplayed out doing a little rant in which my cult-leader threatened to curse the other guy to a lifetime of injustice and disorder if he didn't let me go. (Total bullshit, but spun in a believable way.) I got a hard hit. The other player nevertheless refused to be persuaded by this, and thus had to "act under fire", which he did.

    He then tried to persuade my character that hooking himself up to the machine would be a bad idea. With identical results.

    Does that make things clearer?

  10. That is, we were being good and "role playing it out" by backing things up with description/threat.

  11. The acting was of a very high standard!

  12. Is this party conflict idea common in "Indie" games, Noisms? I get the impression it is and I can't say I'm particularly in favor of the idea. Looks like you guys had a ball with it but it strikes me as a very easy way to make a dysfunctional group dynamic.

    I don't think skill-check-based mechanics should ever be designed to end at this kind of impasse. Ideally they should do the opposite, serving to determine an outcome where the players' interactions have brought the situation to an impasse (or where the players/GM don't want to make a decision). Sounds like they didn't think through all the possibilities...

  13. I'm no apoc world expert, but from what I know of Vincent's games, there is no "for the story" in apoc world. You make your characters seem real, and if that means you get stuck in a spiral of arguments with you both slowly beating each other to death, declaring war, or whatever, then either the rules aren't working right in your game, or your characters are really willing to die about this crap.

    On the broader point, do you want your social mechanics to stop screaming arguments? Because in a lot of games I would, where there's a party that need to stay on good terms, where it gets boring, where people use it as an excuse to get their real personal stuff on the table. Ugh. But in a game where people are in apocolyptic wasteland half at each other's throats, half working together to survive, a screaming argument or too based on that could be exactly what you want!

    Remember that each of you could have in character reacted to the same feeling of "fuck, this could go on forever" stepped back from the argument and considered the other person's position (read a person includes the question "how can I get your character to do this" said directly to a player). If they are real people and not just irresistable forces, maybe they would eventually.

    Again, my knowledge is limited, but it looks a bit like you were using the game in two ways that differ from intention:

    1-intimidation with threat of force is "go aggro", "seize by force" is about stuff.

    So get him to not use the machine="go aggro", nick the machine off him/barracade it="seize by force".

    I think it needs a better name!

    2-The other grey area is the leverage. Like if your characters keep pulling additional leverage out of their arses, then presumably at some point someone should be able to call their bluff.

    That could be pretty interesting, if your hocus claims he can do something he can't, the other guy read's him to see if he's lying, fails the roll, and the MC goes, "OK you now believe that he is capable of doing that rediculous thing just with a word, what do you do?"

    Also, if everyone feels like the argument is getting boring, the MC could have carried on the countdown clock of some external threat, or otherwise announced dodgy stuff in the distance, so while you were arguing, some threat is getting worse. That might also have encouraged you to change attitude.

    How long did this take in real time?

  14. Also there's a bit I missed out, the MC cannot force you to do stuff like he did.

    He has moves that constrain his action, if he wants you to move on, he has to do something like I said, or cliffhanger that moment and jump to someone else for a bit of a break (I think you can do that in apoc world, not sure), or talk to you as a common player about how you're going too far for him.
    He can't just change what your characters do!

    You could have asked him or any other player for ideas though.

    If things are going too far, that can be a great moment for characterisation, and could have really changed the relationship between your two characters. It's where you see their limits.

    Also you could have "gone aggro" with the ranting about cursing, and then he could have forced your hand by saying "do it then" which would have forced the issue on whether you were lying, and put who exactly is watching very much in the spotlight!

  15. Hmm, I should have asked more questions before spewing suggestions, both from you and people who know the game better, as I think I might be wrong on my first point, but in a nuenced way:

    I think that seizing "a person" as if they were a thing might be a pretty legit although unusual use of "seize by force": Kidnapping by a slaver for example. So if you just grab him to stop him doing something, and he doesn't convince you otherwise, you still don't care what he wants to do, because you've got him.

    The question then becomes what to do with him, maybe because you don't want to move into kidnapping and hostage situations, especially as he can try convincing other people around you.

    But my central suggestion is the same, consider how your characters would deal with the same impass you recognise. Would they keep going? etc etc

    This is the kind of game that is built for that kind of conflict, but it's built to force you to hit into it head on and deal with it! Whether you like that or not is another matter..

  16. Josh: I think actually the MC did okay. Neither me nor the other player were willing to back down, and he basically did what we would eventually have done anyway by resorting to fiat - i.e. making us both do a "read the person" roll to ask how we could get the other to back down. I think lack of familiarity with the system on the players' parts meant we just didn't think to do that ourselves. I don't mind a GM using fiat in such cases - when the players clearly don't get the system yet.

    Thanks for your comments though - it makes things a lot clearer.

  17. I almost wonder if there should be an extra MC move called "remind players of their options" but technically that breaks one of the principles of apocalypse world; where the MC talks to the characters not the players.

    How do you do that in your game, if your players just get stuck?

  18. I think you were doing it wrong :). The act under fire roll is not to decide if you can resist the manipulation or not. That decision is really up to the player on the recieving end.
    The roll is to determine if the act or effort of refusing causes some other complication or not.

    It's hard to say what that complication be as your example is a bit abstract, but being distracted, troubled, or hesitant is ok. Like, refusing, but being torn on the issue, take -1 ongoing. You might as well keep the roll for later. The PC will act under fire, just not now yet.
    For example, May tries to persuade Butcher not to kill Chicken. Rolls a 7-9, chooses the stick. Butcher refuses to spare Chicken and storms away to kill her. When it comes to Butcher standing in front of Chicken ready to smash her in the face, he might hesitate: rolls Act under fire. Now, if it's a 7-9, he does hesitate, the MC might decide that Chicken has time enough to call for help. On a 6-, the MC might decide that Chicken is able to run awawy to safety AND call her big brother.
    Hope this helps.

  19. Way: Ah! That actually makes a million percent more sense. Thanks. Not being the MC and having no access to the rulebook, I wasn't sure whether something was being misread or misunderstood, or not.

  20. Just want to add that rolling the same move repeatedly is actually counter to the rules as written. Unless the situation changes substantially you only get the one shot.

    This is probably precisely so situations don't get bogged down in stale mates and instead lead to escalation or different strategies.