2010-04-26 : The MC, a GM

You know how Dogs in the Vineyard presents a way to GM that I didn't invent, I just explained it and provided some good tools for it? Lots of people, encountering the game, said "but this is just how you GM any game." Some of these people respect Dogs for the tools it provides, but others don't have any use for it. "Who needs this?" they say. "Isn't this already common knowledge?"

Same thing with Apocalypse World. "MCing" is a way to GM that I didn't invent, I'm just explaining it and providing some good tools for it. I expect lots of people, encountering the game, to say "but this is just how you GM any game." I hope to win them over with the quality of the tools it provides—and just wait until you see them, they are some high-quality tools—but still some people won't be impressed. That's fine too. They don't need it.

As ways to GM go, it's probably about as old as roleplaying itself, and quite widespread. It's a strong and coherent body of solutions to the problems that roleplaying poses, so lots of groups have already happened upon it. Further, lots and LOTS of groups have guessed at its existence and have been groping toward it without ever quite fixing upon it, sometimes nailing it and getting great play, sometimes missing it and getting eh. I especially hope to reach these latter.

Anyway, if you wonder why John Harper, for instance, grasps Apocalypse World so immediately and so fully, it's not because he can read my mind. It's because he recognizes the game from his own experience.


A short play by me.

One month ago, 4:45am. Vincent, John, Twyla and Carl have finished the Old Rasputin. They're passing around the Double Bastard.

John: Well maybe you should say it, if you want people to know it.
Vincent: I did!
John: Really? Where?
Vincent: Somewhere obscure, a long time ago. Plus I wasn't talking about Apocalypse World then.
John: ...
Vincent: Maybe I should say it again?



1. On 2010-04-27, Mule said:

I remember that comment, and how it was a major spark of interest in Storming the Wizard's Tower for me.  I'm a fan of exploring the different ways to GM games.

Whatever happened to that game?  A little less than a year ago you mentioned a show-stopping problem, but didn't get into it.  I figured failure was just harder to get excited about talking about here, but on your Walking Eye podcast you specifically call out for questions about failure.  Is there a discussion somewhere of the problems the game had in development?

Also, curse you Mr. Baker, I like my money and you're going to make me have less of it soon.


2. On 2010-04-27, Chris said:

Yeah, my impression on encountering the MC Moves was just that: this is simply how to run a post-apoc game with ANY system. Same with Fronts; they're just an organizational tool for how GMs, in my opinion, should already be running their games.

That said, it's not bad that they're in the book or anything and I can't imagine anyone thinking so. The only problem I've seen with them is when GMs lose common sense and take some of the smaller sentences as absolute gospel. For instance, the whole "first sessions should just follow the characters around" becomes "Oh, there should be NO conflict AT ALL in the first session, Vincent says so" even though that contradicts the MC Moves, which I take to apply to first sessions as well.

So you end up with people NOT doing any of the MC Moves for the first session because there's a blurb about following the characters around.


3. On 2010-04-27, Ry said:

Vincent, could you describe what that GMing style is?

(I keep seeing things that describe what it isn't, or kind of sort of what it is, but not actually what it is, and I feel like 'Which one's Barack Obama?' 'Barack Obama is the guy in the suit.'  'Which one?' 'The black one.'  'The black suit?')


4. On 2010-04-27, Chris Chinn said:


Yeah, I saw "Make their lives NOT BORING" and flashed back to writing way back on DitG, "Make things interesting" and having people go, "but what do you mean by interesting?" and me going, "What do you find interesting?  Put that in your scenes!" etc.

I think the slow shift we're seeing permeate is the understanding that some games are designed to be GM'ed in specific ways, that doing just any ol'which way will not necessarily lead to fun games.


5. On 2010-04-27, Vincent said:

Mule: I don't remember where the discussion was; there's not much to discuss, really. The show-stopping problem with Storming the Wizard's Tower was that it didn't scale up: it works as written for 3 players, is a stretch for 4, breaks for 5, and is fully-broken for 6 or more. Combined with a couple of other design-goal refinements, this means that I have to redesign from principles, there's no way to just fix it and press forward.

Once Apocalypse World is done and out of my hair, Storming the Wizard's Tower is next up.

Chris: I think that particular error is pretty funny, since I lead off with "for the first session, do everything it says in the MC chapter, and especially do the following..." The first session properly has the MC doing MORE stuff, not less stuff.

Ry: Sure. It's:
- Make Apocalypse World (or whatever) seem real;
- Make the characters' lives not boring.

- Always saying what the rules demand;
- Always saying what your prep demands;
- Always saying what the principles demand.

...The principles being, give or take:
- Barf forth apocalyptica (that is, express your personal vision enthusiastically);
- Address yourself to the characters over the players;
- Make your moves but misdirect;
- Give your NPCs names, independent lives, and straightforward drives;
- But look at them through crosshairs anyway;
- Think offscreen too;
- Ask questions and build upon the answers;
- Always give the characters what they work for, but not always what they hope for.

...Using the MC's moves to embody all the above in moment-to-moment play. I'm not going to bother to list them out here.

Take all that as a way to GM, and you'll discover, for instance, the reason why my little brother was so much better a DM than Travis was, and why my group's long-term Ars Magica game worked when it worked and didn't work when it didn't, and just how badly I flubbed Over the Edge that one time, and etc etc.

Chris Chinn: Yep.


6. On 2010-04-27, Jesse Burneko said:

Vincent, I think the fact that you take the time to tell people how to GM a given game is a vital service.  One of the things that drives me stark raving mad about this hobby is some people's bizarre desire to keep this hobby strictly in the realm of oral tradition passed on from one GM to another.

Them: "There's nothing new here, that's just good GMing."
Me: "Really, how did you learn that?"
Them: "Huh?  Well.... erm..."
Me: "What game text taught you?"
Them: "It's just, you know, good GMing.  Anyone should know."
Me: "Oh really?"



7. On 2010-04-28, Joel said:

Further, lots and LOTS of groups have guessed at its existence and have been groping toward it without ever quite fixing upon it, sometimes nailing it and getting great play, sometimes missing it and getting eh. I especially hope to reach these latter.

Yes, THIS.

When I encountered texts like Dogs, and IaWA, and for that matter blogs like Anyway and Deep in the Game (shout out, Chris!), I found that they spelled out something I was desperately seeking in my play, but didn't know how to achieve or even describe. By putting words to the particular ethos of play, AND how to do it, they got me started on reforming my whole play philosophy bit by bit toward something that was satisfying for me.




8. On 2010-04-29, tonydowler said:

This fits very well with how I've encountered Apocalypse World. It showcases GM-ing done the way I want to do it. It has helped me become a better GM. I got a bit of this feeling from Poison'd and Storming the Wizard's Tower too, but AW is the one.

For the record, I never really got into running Dogs.


9. On 2010-04-30, Josh W said:

So ars magica as you played it is GM'd (or co-GM'd) the same way as apocalypse world?

How does misdirecting work in that co-GM'ing context? Is it just that when you reveal what you were actually doing, the obfuscation collapses and other players recognise it as a move?

I'm not sure that's very clear, basically I'm talking about the old distinction between "mysteries" and "revelations with foreshadowing" in that case a pre-existing move structure would provide the interpretive framework to allow people to spot foreshadowing. The ideal structure might then be one that you only catch other player's intentions maybe 25% of the time, but when they reveal them you can look back and find that the logic is obvious.

Did you make intentional ambiguities between moves? And are there moves that just don't work in co-GM'ing>


10. On 2010-04-30, Chris said:

The MC Moves keep the game focused on a post apoc feel. I'm actually not a huge fan of "moves" by the gm, per se. I like to just like things like Fronts lead to "plot". Here's an interesting quote by the creators of one of the pieces of media AW is emulating:

"Joss doesn't believe in moves. Moves are plot developments within a story that are there because they are "cool", amusing or convenient for the writer. Instead, Joss likes events in a story to occur because those and exactly those events get at the emotional truth he is demonstrating"
-Jane Espenson, referring to Mutant Enemy's (Joss Whedon's production company)views on story and plot.

I think the use of the word "moves" is interesting. I think what is being said here, in terms of AW, is that the story should generate from the Fronts rather than from the Moves, or at least, that the MC should be careful to select the right Move that ties in best with the current Front.

It's important to remember that the Moves are not just a cafeteria menu. They're not just a chart for random rolls. They don't guarantee good GMing. There is still a learning curve here, the same with any other game.

It's interesting because AW is not the only game with Fronts. The new Dresden Files game has them as well, with it's Themes and Threats-based city creation. Both are very cool little GM tools that go a long way towards helping GMs tell good stories through organizational means.

But like I said: they don't guarantee a good game by themselves.


11. On 2010-04-30, Vincent said:

Yes, absolutely. That's why your prep—your fronts—rank up in "always say," and your moves don't. Moves in Apocalypse World aren't "moves" the way Jane Espenson means. They're just how you make your fronts into on-screen action.

Josh, I'd love to talk about moves, fronts and co-GMing. Stand by!


12. On 2010-05-03, Roger said:

Does a demand for this sort of advice exist among players as much as it exists among GMs?  If not, why?


13. On 2010-05-03, Chris Chinn said:

This advice used to be everywhere for players, all under the guises of "How to Roleplay", "Good Roleplaying".

Then people started getting better at being clear about the point of play and tying in mechanical rewards to induce the type of play that fit the game.

Right now, GM's generally don't have mechanical rewards to induce play, so we fall back on advice.


14. On 2010-05-04, Vincent said:

Roger: The corresponding issue for you as a player is your relationship to your character, right? It's much easier for a game to communicate that. It's a matter for a sentence or three, not for a whole chapter.

In a well-designed game, one of the functions of character creation is to put you into the right relationship with your character. All of my games do this, and they take it very seriously, starting right with the opening seconds of kill puppies for satan.

Chris: I don't expect or hope for a time with more mechanical GMing. The idea of an early-play process like character creation to put the GM into the right relationship with the game's fiction as a whole, though, that's pretty interesting to me.


15. On 2010-05-04, Chris Chinn said:

"I don't expect or hope for a time with more mechanical GMing."

Says the man who made Cruel Fortunes and MC Moves? :P You're already on the way, my friend.


16. On 2010-05-04, Christian Griffen said:

There's some mechanical GMing in games with GM budgets like PTA, Agon and Beast Hunters (of which Vincent now has a copy with a dedication to Judd :).

To me (after running Session 1 last Sunday), AW feels like "crunchified" Otherkind dice. You get what you wanted, or you get screwed, or a mix there. The thing I'm marveling about right now is that AW ingeniously solves the potential play-before-play issue of many other recent resolution systems while still avoiding the pitfalls of old systems.  The players don't need to negotiate stakes, because they know what their moves can do. And they need to play it all out to really apply the move (frex, when reading a person, holding the questions to use during the conversation). At the same time, the MC doesn't need to present the other side of the stakes because those possibilities are always known to the players (taking harm, being separated, etc.). And that also requires roleplaying to see which one actually comes to pass and how.

So instead of setting binary stakes, rolling, and then maybe skipping over the details and moving on, we end up resolving stuff in often surprising ways and with lots of roleplaying, all while everyone knows how to go after their characters' goals and what's at risk for doing that. Very smooth, and very cool.


17. On 2010-05-05, Chris said:

Yeah, it's because it's a pretty traditional game that controls GMing. So where a game like Savage Worlds has players rolling against a 4 and me telling them what happened, AW gives the whole table several options. It's a very freeform "trad" game that focuses the GM's play into productive avenues through the limiting of options, which is pretty much the definition of a game.


18. On 2010-05-07, Jaywalt said:

I think we also have developed the "technology" to communicate to non-GM players how to approach play:

- Keys (TSOY)
- Fanmail (PTA)
- Beliefs & Instincts (BW)
- Aspects (SOTC)
- Restrictions (Nobilis)
- Loresheets (WOTG)
- See/Raise/Give/Escalate (Dogs)
- Player Moves (AW)
- etc.

Those are basically all the player-equivilent of Fronts and have definitely made it easier for me, as a player, to have a better handle on how to make things happen on my end. Now we can do it BOTH WAYS! (or all ways, as the GM role gets distributed in other forms).


19. On 2010-05-17, Vincent said:

Okay, Josh! Co-GMing and moves.

The reason you misdirect when you make your moves as MC is to create an illusion, not to hide your intentions. You choose a move, then pretend that it wasn't your choice, it was just obvious what would happen next. Like when I choose "put someone in a spot" more or less on a whim, but I say "Roark totally spots you moving around up there. He opens fire on you—bullets are spacking all around you, he's got you pretty well pinned. What do you do?"

"Roark spots you" = misdirection. It's like "Roark did this to you, not me," even though obviously I'm the one who really did it.

"Bullets are spacking, you're pinned" = not speaking its name.

So when you're co-GMing, yes, you absolutely still misdirect and still don't speak your moves' names. Those principles govern what you say right now, at the moment of play. They aren't about whether you create mysteries or have secret plans at all.

Make sense? Do you want to talk more about moves, or about mysteries and secret plans?


20. On 2010-06-14, Jamie Fristrom said:

So, hey, I fully intend to buy AW, but you know, if you wanted to take your advice and learnedness on how to GM in cool ways and put it in some sort of system-agnostic book that wasn't in itself a complete game - I'd be so there.

Like, from IAWA, the "best interests" stuff is pure gold that could be applied to a lot of games.  That could be a section.

Because right now we have to buy all these games and dig around on the forge and various blogs to learn how to be a good GM.  If that knowledge were dug up and put all in one place...


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