Saturday, February 28, 2015

Manifold Regards - Adapting Apocalypse World "Love Letters" for Numenera (or any system, really...)

Apocalypse World was one of the first RPG systems that was opinionated, that is, the designer had an opinion on the 'proper' way to play, instead of just handing over the rules. This translated through in the AW Agendas and Principles:


    Agendas

        Make Apocalypse World seem real.
        Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.
        Play to find out what happens.

    Principles

        Barf forth apocalyptica.
        Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
        Make your move, but misdirect.
        Make your move, but never speak its name.
        Look through crosshairs.
        Name everyone, make everyone human.
        Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
        Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards.
        Be a fan of the players’ characters.
        Think offscreen too.
        Sometimes, disclaim decision-making

These will be useful context for the Love Letters concept, which was introduced in the optional rules section of AW (called 'Advanced Fuckery' instead of Optional Rules, natch). In the AW book, they're not even called Love Letters, just presented as custom moves for "Catching Up, Setting Up", all opening with "Dear Hardholder" (Hardholder is one of the playbooks, so think of it as the D&D Class or Numenera Type), then presenting something that occurred between sessions of play as a Move. For those who don't know, Moves are the basic bit of Apocalypse World system mechanic, where you roll + a Stat, on a 10+ its a success, 7-9 is a success at a price or with a complication and 6 or lower is a failure. And the letter closed "Love and Kisses, Your MC" (MC=Master of Ceremonies, the AW GM title). 

You can see some good Apocalypse World Love Letters written up at No Ordinary Obsession, if you need some examples to peer at. What I want to talk about is why (and how) to use them in Numenera (or any other game really).


So why use the Love Letter mechanic? They are great for Catching Up, Setting Up or Summarizing action that takes place between a session. I was reminded of them when I was playing in my best man Thomas' 13th Age game, when we started using the 13th Age Montage mechanic. I wanted to use something similar in Numenera, but I had just run the first session of my Numenera game and the PCs were going to start the second session by crossing the Jagged Wastes to Yosh-Ul and then onwards to the Caecilian Jungle. The problem? At the end of the First Session, not knowing the setting very well, I told the players their characters were going to the Great Slab. In the interim between sessions, I realized that the Great Slab was less interesting than I previously thought and shared many characteristics with the Clock of Kala, where they had just been (hard to climb, obviously not natural). Changing the destination, I basically doubled the length of their journey (on the map below the green line is the first leg of their journey to Yosh-Ul and the red is the second leg from Yosh-Ul to the Caecilian Jungle). The other problem I had, is the players had already had their PCs gather knowledge on the Great Slab and now I needed to replace the knowledge with knowledge on the Caecilian Jungle.


The Love Letter mechanic was a great solution. It let me summarize the first leg of the journey, making sure each PC had something interest occur. It gave me the opportunity to inquire more about the character's backgrounds, getting the players to think about their character's background, if they hadn't already, and to communicate that information to me, the GM (something I find players often don't think to do).  I changed the "Dear Hardholder" and "Love and Kisses, your MC" to things I thought fit more into Numenera, "Salutations" and "Manifold Regards, your GM"

Here's the first Love Letter I wrote, with my design comments in Italics and then I'll put the other four examples below without comments.

:;:

Salutations Lrrr,

As you travel across the Jagged Wastes toward Yosh-ul you’ve noticed a small Frilled Baul stalking the caravan. Frilled Baul are predators of the highest order, stealthy beasts that are as long as a man is tall and come up to the shoulders of most humans. When angry, their frills grow as rigid as dagger blades. When the beast is calm, they are flaccid and lay flatter along its body.  To make matter worse, their claws contain powerful paralytic poisons.

With this first paragraph, I tried to set the scene for the move that follows and provide the information the player needed to make his decision. 

Will you:
    Attempt to scare it off to protect the caravan and impress the caravan master, Wend?
    Attempt to kill the creature and harvest its poisons and skin?
    Attempt to domesticate the creature by offering it food and showing it you mean it no harm.

I wanted to give three options, because 'Rule of Three', right? But, really, I find that three options feels like a more open choice than a binary one or another, but also limiting yourself to three keeps you from spiraling out of control.

No other character can assist you, let me know when you've made your decision and I’ll tell you what you need to roll, if you need a roll.

I put the above restriction in because I wanted the players to make these decisions as their characters and not to just start discussing the situations with the group. I found this worked out really well as it made the decisions made because of these Love Letters focus the spotlights on the individual PCs instead of becoming just another set of encounters that the Party worked through as a whole. In this case, the player of Lrrr decided to go with Option 1 and impress the caravan master, a woman named Wend. Unfortunately his roll was low and he decidedly did not impress the caravan master, but it did give him a chance to characterize his PC, showing that Lrrr was interested in impressing women and when a Frilled Baul showed up later in the game, Lrrr had a reason to be quite knowledgeable about it.

What natural phenomena are you afraid of, even though logically you know it is not a danger to you?

Lrrr, as a 'Mutant Glaive who Performs Feats of Strength' was definitely one of the tougher characters in the group and I wanted to establish a weakness or frailty for the player to play off of Lrrr's physical strengths. The player chose "claustrophobia" which actually came up in the third and final session, which was quite satisfying for both of us, I think. 

What do you want to know about your next destination, the Caecilian Jungle? (choose one)
    A secret about the Undying Tribe, human cannibals who live in the jungle and appear never to age past maturity.
    The location of a cache of Numenera near the center of the Jungle.

With the choice of knowledge that I provided each PC at the end of the letter I wanted to give the Players a chance to decide what kind of knowledge their PCs would prefer to have and also with the option they didn't choose, to at least hint at other rumors or facts they might know about the jungle, even if they didn't know much. Unfortunately, the players understood this as "my PC only knows the fact I chose" instead of "my PC knows about both, but knows more about the fact I chose" I ended up having to make this clear later during the game session, and if I use this tact again, I'll make it clearer up front to my players.

Manifold Regards,
Your GM

I went with 'Manifold Regards' because it seemed odd and archaic and I like the multiplicity implied with manifold.

:;:

Final Thoughts


I definitely intend to make the Love Letter concept a more utilized tool in my GM kit. They work excellently for setting the stage, providing action between game sessions, getting players to think about and communicate more about their character backgrounds and providing an convenient information dump opportunity.

:;:

Salutations Vexilia,

As you travel across the Jagged Wastes toward Yosh-ul you’ve made the acquaintance of a strangely armored Nano named Blagz who has intimated that he has a Numenera that would help your injured arm, but he wants 75 shin for it.

Will you:
    Pay 75 shin?
    Attempt to bargain and/or barter for the device?
    Attempt to steal the device from Blagz

No other character can assist you, let me know when you’ve made your decision and I’ll tell you what you need to roll, if you need a roll.

Was your adopted big sister Azariel a Nano, a Jack or a Glaive?

What distinctive mutation did Azariel hide? (choose one)
    Extra eyes on the palms of her hands
    Gills on her neck that let her breath underwater
    A prehensile snake tail

What do you want to know about your next destination, the Caecilian Jungle? (choose one)
    The name of a renowned warrior who lives on the edge of the jungle
    Details on one of the dangerous creatures that lives in the jungle

Manifold Regards,
Your GM

:;:

Salutations Kryyz,

As you travel across the Jagged Wastes toward Yosh-ul you’ve noticed patches of sand that you think would let you move more quickly when you exist out of phase. You’ve also noticed that one of the Jacks travelling with the group, Seble, seems to have her eyes out for patches as well, but you think she is not as adept at spotting it as you are. One day you come across an especially large patch.

Will you:
    Take only a small amount that you can carry to study secretly, keeping the sand a secret from Seble?
    Pay 3 shins to some of the Caravan porters to load several large sacks with the sand, but again keeping the sand to yourself?
    Work with Seble to gather a larger amount of the sand and see what she knows about its properties?

No other character can assist you, let me know when you’ve made your decision and I’ll tell you what you need to roll, if you need a roll.

Why don’t you travel with your Uncle Olyvyrz, who also exists partially out of phase?

What do you want to know about your next destination, the Caecilian Jungle? (choose one)
    A secret about the Wild Garden, a carefully tended garden of genetically enhanced carnivorous plants surrounded by a wall of electricity 10 feet high.
    A method for contacting Alojz, a renowned explorer of the jungle who is rumored to be ageless.

Manifold Regards,
Your GM

:;:

Salutations Joleen,

As you travel across the Jagged Wastes toward Yosh-ul you find a letter from Dalker Keech, the bandit leader from Norou. In the letter he begs you for your help and asks you to meet him alone at a place near where the caravan will pass. He says that he is alone and travelling several leagues off from the road the caravan is travelling. He claims to have come down with a disease called “The Blue Ache” and is willing to trade you a Numenera Cypher for your meeting him and an Artifact in exchange for your help.

Will you:
    Ignore his letter with its plea for help?
    Meet with him alone on his terms?
    Bring your companions along to the meeting and ambush him?

No other player can assist you in making your decision, you should make it without telling any of them what you’re considering or what the situation is. Let me know when you’ve made your decision and I’ll tell you what you need to roll, if you need a roll.

Why did you leave the nomad bands of the Plains of Kataru

What do you want to know about your next destination, the Caecilian Jungle? (choose one)
    A fact about Archeol, a miniature city where the buildings stand no taller than a human’s knees. The inhabitants are said to be supernatural beings, sometimes mechanical and sometimes just very small humans. Clearly, someone still uses the city, but they’re either invisible or adept at hiding.
    How to ward off Blood Feast Ticks, a nasty insect pest that transform into human sized Scion ticks once they’ve drained all the blood from their prey.

Manifold Regards,
Your GM

:;:

Salutations Astrape,

As you travel across the Jagged Wastes toward Yosh-ul one of the merchants riding with the caravan, a young merchant named Citrine approached you. She had heard you were a Nano, and hoped that your knowledge of Numenera would help her. She says she has a map to her a site near the caravan trail where her father was slain, but she thinks his wagon of cyphers should still be there. She’s offering you a chance to have a pick of the Numenera you help her recover as long as you’re willing to go alone with her to the site to keep other more ruthless travelers from nosing their way into the salvage operation.

Will you:
    Agree to go alone with Citrine to the site?
    Try to negotiate with her to bring along your companions/and or other bodyguards/assistants?
    Refuse to assist the young merchant?

No other player can assist you in making your decision, you should make it without telling any of them what you’re considering or what the situation is. Let me know when you’ve made your decision and I’ll tell you what you need to roll, if you need a roll.

Have you ever met another person who can also Ride the Lightning? If so, what was your relationship with them like? If not, do you think you’re unique or do you hope to meet others and why?

What do you want to know about your next destination, the Caecilian Jungle? (choose one)
    Knowledge of a lost camp in the Malingering Valley said to contain a partially excavated artifact. The Malingering Valley is a deep, dark cut through the earth that is always in unnatural shadow. Cold springs that run underground erupt regularly in spouts of cold water, ice steam, and small creatures carried from the depths.
    The location of the hut/hermitage of Narrlon-Kem, a Lattimor herbalist who lives in the jungle. Lattimor are the symbiotic union of two different creatures, a bursk (a large, muscular, hairy biped) and a neem (an intelligent fungal creature).

Manifold Regards,
Your GM

2 comments:

  1. Read the original DMG for an opinion on how one should play the game.

    I kinda like this mechanic, but it seems to fly in the face of my interest in lazy DMing (merging less prep with smarter prep in general). I'm not sure how much time it takes to produce these, but is the time investment worth it at the table?

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    Replies
    1. It took me about an hour to prep these, and I think the time investment was worth it because I did change the party's original destination, so having these kept the players from spending time making rolls to try and figure out what they wanted to know about the new destination.

      They aren't a mechanic I'd use all the time, but they do work well to cover things like journeys or to use if a player was absent to establish what their PC did while they were away. They also worked really well as a good info dump for setting information.

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