Monday, August 31, 2015

The Shattered World - Setting without a Plot

Previously, on this very blog, I've written about my Pitch for my 5e D&D campaign, the Shattered World, and the Icons I created for the setting. You should go read that post to get an idea of what I'm working with. What I've come to realize since that blog post, and having run an additional session of that game in the meantime, is that while I set up a rich setting (at least I think so) I did a piss poor job of setting up a plot. In order to keep this post shorter, I've put up a separate post with a bare bones summary of the game so far that you can find here. Below the jump is the conundrum I find myself in and what I'm trying to do to fix it.

Having run 4 sessions now and prepping for a 5th tomorrow, I've realized that while I put a lot of work into setting up the setting (those of you playing the Antagonist Relations Drinking Game can take a drink for that groanworthy turn of phrase) I've done an awful job at setting up any plot, either personal to a PC or for the party/game. Going into this game, my players in my Tuesday night group decided they wanted to return to D&D 5e after forays into Dungeon World, Shadowrun and 13th Age, but my head was still deep in Apocalypse World, which I was running as I started prepping this. Not feeling incredibly excited about the possibilities of D&D 5e I decided to try and run a D&D game as if I was running Apocalypse World which has run me head long into three very large problems.

  1. Apocalypse World relies on the Players playing a playbook to generate plot
  2. Apocalypse World is a place of Fundamental Scarcities
  3. Apocalypse World provides Principles for the MC (GM) to run the game by
When I tried to pull an Apocalypse World MC trick, starting out sessions by asking Players "What do you do?" it fell flat, I could swear that I could hear it land with a wet and echoing thud on the table. Now, a few players would try and say "Well, I go scout out this part of the ship", but I found that I couldn't follow that thread as much as I wanted to because D&D isn't built like Apocalypse World. So in the four sessions I've run of the game here is the way each sessions plot started. (more complete summaries here)

  1. In media res - the PCs wake up and they're being assaulted by zombies. No player input or choice.
  2. Plot given by NPC - the PCs are told to go do a thing by an NPC. Players could have chosen not to do the thing, but didn't, because they didn't know any better option due to poor DMing.
  3. Plot given by NPC - the PCs are told to go do a thing by an NPC. Players could have chosen not to do the thing, but didn't, because they didn't know any better option due to poor DMing.
  4. Plot Happens - Almost like in media res, where out of nowhere a storm and dirigible armada showed up to and attacked the ship. No player input or choice.

Apocalypse World relies on the Players playing a playbook to generate plot

AW has different playbooks (Battlebabe, Gunlugger, Hocus, Chopper) that folk will often compare to classes to give the idea of what a playbook is about, but they're not classes... When you play a Chopper, you're the only Chopper, other people (that is NPCs) might be called Choppers but you're the only real Chopper. A game of Apocalypse World never has two Choppers (or Gunluggers, or Drivers, &on) even if the first Chopper dies or retires safely out of reach of the MC's fuckery because each playbook is a Singular Character. D&D is not like that at all, when you play a Fighter in D&D you are in a long tradition of Fighters, even if the DM doesn't stat up tons of NPC fighters. While a party might not have two Bard PCs there is no rule in D&D against having two Bards but Apocalypse World requires, in it's very DNA that you never have two of the same playbook. It's very subtle, but the singular of each playbook makes it easy for an Apocalypse World GM to generate plot. PCs in Apocalypse World might start as friends, but with the tensions of the playbooks, it's easy to spark up plots between PCs as the Chopper finds that she needs to keep her gang of motorcycle thugs entertained and the Brainer starts slipping amongst the residents of the Hardhold using his "in-brain puppet strings" to make folk do what he wants, One of the dirty little secrets of Apocalypse World is that having fucking cool moves listed on your playbook sheet makes you want to use that fucking cool shit. If you pick the Hocus and you see Frenzy you're going to want to find a way to use it, even if it fucks with the other players a bit.

Frenzy: When you speak the truth to a mob, roll+weird. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9,
hold 1. Spend your hold 1 for 1 to make the mob:
• bring people forward and deliver them.
• bring forward all their precious things.
• unite and fight for you as a gang (2-harm 0-armor size appropriate).
• fall into an orgy of uninhibited emotion: fucking, lamenting, fighting, sharing, celebrating, as you choose.
• go quietly back to their lives.
On a miss, the mob turns on you.

How could you not want to use that? D&D, on the other hand, isn't focused on the same kind of social tension. D&D classes are not singular, the cool shit on your sheet in D&D is mostly based on having a monster or enemy in front of you to fight. Even the stuff that affects other PCs (healings, buffs) is predicated on being in a fight with some ogres (or other appropriate adversary). Intra-party conflict isn't baked into D&D the way it is in Apocalypse World and where a Driver in Apocalypse World slipping off with a trailer full of supplies might fly in AW, it's an infamous party ruining truth that the surest way in D&D to have your fellow players hate you is to have your rogue steal from other party members. So where AW playbooks assume that they'll be playing off the other playbooks to generate a great deal of the "plot" of the game, D&D definitely assumes that the classes are interacting with monsters (or NPC enemies) to generate the narrative thrust of the game. Your D&D fighter's sheet doesn't have any real narrative frisson just because there's a barbarian sheet being played, both those sheets need that external, DM provided enemy to battle against. The other place where AW and D&D diverge wildly is on splitting the party, where AW is a game that rewards scenes with one or two players and a MC spotlight that moves between scenes, D&D infamously doesn't split the party well, leading players to resist having one of their own wander off on scouting missions and providing little narrative drive for single player scenes.

Apocalypse World is a place of Fundamental Scarcities

Even if Apocalypse World players ignore the potential for conflict on their playbooks, the game is one of fundamental scarcities, if the players didn't take any action the MC could always prompt them into action by invoking one of the Fundamental Scarcities: Hunger, Thirst, Ignorance, Fear, Decay, Despair, Envy and Ambition. And since the AW playbooks are built with these in mind, it was easy to draw players in with them (Those playing the Antagonist Relations drinking game can take a shot for "Zack starts a sentence with And"). Maybe Ambition doesn't seem like a Scarcity, but if you're playing the Hardholder playsheet, meant to be the leader of a rag-tag enclave and suddenly this lady Preen comes in and tells all the inhabitants of your place that she could be a better leader than you, you can see real quick how Ambition can be be something to guard (or guard against, maybe) just as much as your food supply. D&D, at least in the default, much less modular than previously advertised, by the Player's Handbook 5e is not a game of scarcities. Even gold, which you could say is the most scarce thing for a starting PC is pretty plentiful. Every fighter can start with a weapon and chainmail, plus an adventuring kit with rope and whatnot at the very least, whereas in the Planarch Codex World of Dungeons 1979 starting equipment a fighter style character has 25 sp to start and a Martial weapon or light armor cost 30sp making getting out there and earning some money a very real concern (Those playing the Antagonist Relations drinking game can take a drink for "Zack uses whatnot in a sentence"). D&D 5e is also lousy with magic, which makes scarcity hard to enforce. Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin and Ranger all have healing in their 1st level spell lists (and unlike earlier editions, Paladins and Rangers only have to make it to 2nd level before they get access to spells) and Clerics, Druids, Paladins and Rangers all have 1st level spells that either create magical food (goodberry), create water or purify food and water, making hunger and thirst mostly irrelevant. 

Apocalypse World provides Principles for the MC (GM) to run the game by

This is probably the least obvious, but I think it's still relevant to my struggles. When I'm running Apocalypse World, I know what my Agenda is, I know what I have to Always Say, I know the Principles I should run the game by and I know the Moves I have. I even know how to disclaim responsibility and pass on Decision-Making. With my Shattered World D&D 5e campaign I took the GM style of Apocalypse World, but I didn't make a conscious effort to create Principles to run that style with. In a normal D&D 5e game, this might not matter, but since I was trying to emulate AW it was leaving a crucial piece behind, like a necromancer trying to rebuild a skeleton but thinking he didn't need the spine.

So, solutions?

So my game is a bit of a directionless mess, I've got the setting pretty well-established, but the PCs don't really tie into it that well, even with their icon relationships. All of this was my fault as I didn't set up a good "what is this game about pitch" just a "what is this setting" pitch, so players didn't have any real guidance of goals/plots aside from "survive" which only gets a game so far. What am I going to do about it? 

Disclaim Responsibility

It's a bit of a cheat, but I'm going to try and pass the buck, but just a little. I'm working on figuring out what the Players want/and or what they think their PCs want. So to that end I put up the following on the group Facebook page I use to organize the game.

Alright, so the next session will be our 5th. So far I’ve been playing fast and loose with plot, trying more to set up the setting and letting your PCs focus on surviving. I’ve tried a little to let the Icon rolls bring in hooks and potential plot lines, but I think it’s time to see what you want to have your PCs do. So, what do y’all want to do? Here is a very incomplete list of suggestions.
Personal Plots/Goals. Here's a list Lorefinder Drives that are pretty good, though fairly generic, examples of what might drive your PC.

  • Adventure
  • Ambition
  • Altruism
  • Atonement
  • Arcana
  • Chronicler
  • Compulsion
  • Curiosity
  • Duty
  • Faith
  • Glory
  • Greed
  • Grudge
  • Intervention
  • Justice
  • Respect
  • Strange Luck
  • Wanderlust
Icons: Now that you’ve had a chance to get a sense of the world, if you want to switch around Icon points, this will be the last opportunity for a while. If you want to see more of an icon you have a tie to show up in the game, let me know.

Party Goals: These are more ideas of the big plots that we could follow

  • Clearing out the ship to make it safe as an ark for survivors.
  • Trying to figure out what caused/fix the Shattering
  • Finding those responsible for the Shattering and bringing them to justice/subjecting them to vengeance.
  • Finding a safe place to start over
  • Becoming powerful warlords or sky-pirates ruling from a giant flying ship
  • Focus on surviving at any cost
But those are just off the top of my head suggestions, so what do you actually want to explore with your PCs

Also, feel free to let me know if you want more of a certain style of play, like do people want more intrigue with survivors and groups on the ship? More dungeon crawls into the bowels of the ship?

A couple more things to consider:
  • If I start the next session with a "What are you doing" does the party have a plan? 
  • If a NPC shows up and asks who the leader of the group is, will someone step up and will the rest of the party follow them? 
  • If you have a personal goal, does it piggyback well with anyone else's? 
  • If you don't care too much about the party goal or having deep personal goals are you okay with your PC becoming more of a supporting character, there but not making the big decisions or driving the plot?

So far I've gotten three responses:
  • Go back and investigate the Monastery of the Dark Brew from the backstory of one of the PC's.
  • Sky Pirates. (I'm pretty certain the player who suggested this one wants the PCs to become Sky Pirates, not that he wants the party to fight against sky pirates)
  • Clear out the ship to make it safe as an ark for survivors because saving people via killing lots of evil races is super appealing.
Not a lot of consensus there yet, especially since the Monastery belonged to a cult of monk-assassins making poisons and masquerading as brewers, so they're not obviously on the side of good. Two of the responses, monastery investigation and sky pirates involve needing to take the steering of the ship away from the NPC Captain Ishmael (or find some smaller ship to take off in) or convincing that NPC to tell him where the ship to, so at least that might be a nice starting point.

One of the MC rules for Session 1 of Apocalypse World is "Ask Questions like Crazy" and I've done an exceptionally shitty job with that in this game. I've done a lot of showing the players the world of the setting but haven't prodded them to answer questions about their characters to fill in the blanks.
I had intended to rectify that with the fourth session but a late start, we ended up having the last player show up nearly 45 minutes later than expected due to unforeseen traffic, derailed me (for the Antagonist Relations drinking game, take a drink for "Zack uses rectify in a sentence"). But questions need to be asked, I need to get my players thinking more about what their PCs want so that the PCs can start driving the plot more instead of needing my GM mandated plots dropping in to force action.

A partial list of questions I need to start asking of the PCs
  • Who do you miss the most from the old world?
  • Is there another survivor that you don’t trust, why?
  • What hope do you have for the future, or are you just worrying about surviving?
  • What haunts you from before the shattering?
  • Is there something you secretly hope is on the Thalemegos?
  • What comfort do you miss most from the old world?
  • Do you want to build a new world from the ashes of the old or return the world to its former glory?
  • What secret do you want to discover about the Thalemegos?
  • What thing would they risk their life to find/recover?
I've also found a blank map (the image above, at the top of the post) and I'm going to introduce it as a Pre-Shattering Map, so incomplete and changed, but useful for say, deciding maybe what direction they want to go, and while I've decided where their starting point is, they'll get to decide where the following things are (or at least where they used to be before the Shattering).
  • The Monastery of the Dark Brew
  • The mountain range of the Dwarven Kindgom
  • The deep forest of the Elven Queendom
  • The last resting place of the Halfling colossus
  • The section of coast most menaced by Blunanda, Hag-Queen of the Kelp
  • The mountain that contains the gnome city
  • The capital of the human empire
  • The port that the Pirate Lord was rumored to operate from
  • The orc homeland
  • The largest silver deposit
  • The blasted land ruled over by the Necromancer Baron 
  • The library of sacred knowledge
I also need to probe and start drawing out more about the nature of their relationships with the icons. In general I just need to ask more and more questions and let the Players make some decisions. I'm going to keep pushing them until they designate a leader as well, and then if that doesn't work out then I'll let the PCs determine how to deal with leadership instead of providing the outside NPC leadership/quest giving that I've made do with so far.

Reclaim scarcity

So, this is a bit of a dick move, but part of the schtick of the game for me was trying to run a D&D game with scarcity, not realizing that with a Sprig of Mistletoe and the Goodberry spell, the 2nd level Ranger can negate the need for sustenance for up to ten (10!) individuals. Now the spell description doesn't say that the component is consumed but a sprig of mistletoe is an organic thing and all organic things decay, so I'm going to be jerk-DM and say that in the nearly 3 weeks since the PCs came out of stasis the sprig of mistletoe has withered away (not to mention that it might have lost some potency in the 3+ years it was in stasis) and bring the PCs back to needing to find supplies to survive. I should feel worse about it than I do, as I recognize that it is a purely asshole move, but I'm telling myself that I'll include a sprig of mistletoe in some treasure at some point and let that last for a few weeks too before I take it away. Not sure what I'll do when the Cleric gets Create Food and Water at 5th level, but I plan on keeping them at 3rd level for a few more sessions and then 4th for a while so I can bide my time. Also, expending a 3rd level spell slot is a whole order of magnitude more significant that a 1st level slot, or at least I keep telling myself that.

Use an Agenda and Principles to DM with discipline

Since I've committed myself to running this Shattered Worlds D&D game as if it was Apocalypse World I need to commit myself to an Agenda, Always Say and Principles. So here's my first draft drawing on a mish-mash of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World... (for those continuing on with the Antagonist Relations drinking game take a drink for "Zack uses ellipsis") 

  • Portray a fantastic world that’s gone through an apocalyptic catastrophe
  • Make the player’s characters’ lives not boring
  • Play to find out what happens

Always Say
  • What the principles demand (as follow).
  • What the rules demand.
  • What your prep demands.
  • What honesty demands.

  • Draw maps, leave blanks.
  • Address the characters, not the players.
  • Embrace the fantastic and then wreck it so it’s apocalyptic.
  • Give every monster life and name every person.
  • Ask questions and use the answers.
  • Be a fan of the players’ characters.
  • Think dangerously, let nothing be safe.
  • Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards.
  • Begin and end with the fiction.
  • Think offscreen, too, draw in the Icons when possible.
  • Ask more questions.
  • Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.
Hopefully I can disclaim responsibility and give the Players' characters some chance to drive the world, and more importantly, the plot or plots of the game forward more instead of falling back on GM fiat. By taking back some of the scarcity, that should make it easier to drive the players' characters forward as they'll need to take action or starve. Finally, rededicating myself to running a principled game will provide me a framework to run with. 

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