Monday, November 5, 2018

Powered By The Apocalypse Is Pro Wrestling

Warning: This blog entry is going to criticize a PTA game (Powered by The Apocalypse). If historical precedent holds, this means PTA fans will fall upon it and its author like jackals upon a luckless gazelle. This is fine. I do however ask that said jackals (1) be literate in English, the language in which the entry is penned, and (2) then actually use this ability to read the entry before leaving comments. Thank you.

-Zookeepin' Zak

So Jeff Gameblog Ran A Storygame...

It was part of the PTA family of games--that is, Powered by The Apocalypse--meaning a game mechanically inspired by Apocalypse World*. It was a pro wrestling themed game.

Jeff is a big wrestling fan and we all had fun inventing wrestlers, including a juggalo wrestler who hit people with bottles and Jacques LaRoque, a proud Quebecois separatist lumberjack. I played The Leviathan--a phlegmatic mountain of muscle (Power +3) who, behind-the-scenes, was a cerebral, introspective man who disdained the showmanship and foolishness of the circuit but kept on in order to put himself through his PhD.
We all liked our characters and had fun playing them but, as expected, we agreed afterward that the game system seemed to do nothing at all worth doing--and we cast about for other systems we could use.

So:

What Went Wrong?

Part of it has to do with the set up of this particular game. The idea is fine: you don't play Hulk Hogan (a character in the ring) you play a guy named Terry trying to become successful as a professional wrestler. We liked this idea. I might repeat that a few times, since PTA fans are, by and large, kinda slow and may read this: we liked this idea, we liked this idea, we liked this idea.  The biggest problem was twofold:

-The main action of the game set-up (PTA games are much-vaunted for requiring little or no prep) is in the ring. That is, a series of matches.

-Wrestling is fake.

Inside the ring, on top of the usual oblique bunraku-show of storygame combat (Am I rolling vs Work or Power? Can I redescribe what I'm doing so it's about Power, since that's my good stat? Is there any reason to ever not?), you have a match where you have no goal other than serially doing moves (which, if impressive, gain Audience--the xp stat). So while cool wrestling moves are one of the high points of the game (as Jacques LaRoque came toward me with a sliding kick, I swatted his foot aside, spinning him 180 degrees on the mat and grabbed him by the hair in an illegal maneuver) there's no mechanical incentive to describe a cool move (you're still just rolling + Power) and a mild social disincentive to do it (the faster you shut up, the faster other people get to play, including the 3-4 players that aren't even in this match).

Outside the ring, where our characters should be genuinely interesting (The Leviathan, being a postgrad, is actually fairly sympathetic to Quebec separatism and dislikes the frog-baiting that his manager encourages him to do on-screen) there is no support at all:

You are all entertainers competing with each other to gain Audience and become more popular than the other wrestlers--that is the goal. Yet....on top of all the other problems with PTA games, this means that there are very few incentives to do anything behind the scenes with other PCs besides:

-Injure them (which takes your friend out of the game so socially sucks).

-Get into fights with them causing you to gain "Heat" with them. (Which means that there is no reason to do anything but have a conflict, but nothing about the conflict matters so long as it doesn't escalate to someone getting injured.)

Like, after the match...

"I hate you, Jacques Laroque!"

"I hate you as well, Leviathan!"

Ok we both got 1 Heat from that, unless one of us wants to hurt the other one in real life and sideline the next player for an entire session, there's no further mechanical purpose this behind-the-scenes encounter can serve. At this point we can and will keep having fun acting but.....this needs and has no rules? And every second we do this just delays arbitrarily the point at which we switch to the actual wrestling matches and involve other players.

Acting out of the ring (like cool moves in the ring) is the point--and the system disincentivizes it.



Means-Incentives vs Ends-Incentives

In a way, PTA games are pro wrestling: it matters that you dazzlingly leaped through the air onto your opponent--it doesn't matter if that is actually a way to hurt a guy in that situation. The system doesn't care about effectiveness, it only cares about the spectacle. You are only incentivized to do the move not think about what would work and engage the inventions born of necessity.

It speaks to a larger problem with PTA games for people who have played traditional ones or for people who play them as their first game. To back away from the white-hot-button of claiming PTA games are imperfect (I can already hear the trolls going "Zak says PTA is pro wrestling but OSR games are real lol" which I do hope no-one reading is stupid enough to believe) I'll use an example of a game everyone agrees is a mechanical disaster: the original RIFTS:

RIFTS, like most Palladium games, had xp for good plans--if I am right in quoting from memory A critical plan or action that save the entire group or a large number of people: 15 xp. I remember because it was a relatively large reward and so I was always angling for it. The (mild) problem with this well-meaning reward is that it is redundant: your fellow PCs not dying is its own reward, and saving people already has a separate reward.

So the game rewards the means (the plan or action) and the end (everyone being saved). So you get rewarded for both and that's not necessary, it just inflates the math.

All kinds of games have rewards like this where you're essentially rewarded for doing things in the genre instead of-, or in addition to-, successfully achieving the goals that characters in the genre want to achieve. And, of course, old-school D&D and its ilk instead successfully incentivize all kinds of emergent lunacy by the simple expedient of handing out xp for gold or defeating foes.

We can call these rewards-for-steps-along-the-path "means rewards" and call the simpler ones "ends rewards".

Storygames are especially fond of rewarding means-over-ends, because, so far as I can tell from their discussions online:

-A disproportionate number of them are afraid of dying, so the games make it hard to die and "Do this cray thing 'cuz it'll keep you alive" won't work as an incentive

-A disproportionate number of them aren't very intelligent, so the connection between "Get into the spice merchant's good graces" and "Steal the spice ship and its cargo" isn't really apparent to them, so they need to be told they get rewards by saying things like "You are a rogue, every time you deceive someone, gain xp!", and

-Despite being unintelligent, a disproportionate number are dimly aware there is this thing called capitalism that has contributed to them being unintelligent and they get that that's bad (all true), so the idea of granting mechanical advancement for gold sounds a lot like bad capitalism which is bad and bad but also bad, so they never really wrapped their precious lil storygamer heads around how goal-incentives work

So this leads to a game like Apocalypse World positively pneumatic with means-incentives where you're constantly mechanically incentivized to do basically anything in-genre or that creates "drama" and have absolutely no incentive to actually think about how a PC in that universe would achieve an in-character goal. Mad Max and Furiosa have reasons to argue about how to beat the Warboys and little incentive to think of ways to beat the Warboys. They go down when you roll high--possibly because you add the points you got from arguing, period.

Scenes themselves have no end goals (unlike many trad RPGs where they could end with an advantage or disadvantage developing for you during the scene), you can't get anything out of them unless you trigger a move.

So either:

-Like Apoc World you have a long or generalizable move list you kinda need to remember in order that scenes are constantly triggering moves so you make mechanical progress--and you need to always interject the moves at the right moments to make progress, or

-Like the wrestling game, you haven't got many moves so you have a lot of scenes which not only aren't mechanically helpful to you but you know at the beginning aren't going to be mechanically helpful and so now you're just outside the action of in-game progress and delaying the time until you get to the scenes that do create in-game progress. i.e. a strong mechanical and social disincentive to roleplay.

Meanwhile in a trad RPG the goals of your player and that of the PC in a scene often align, so that there is a strong incentive for both of you to get whatever it is the PC wants to get during that scene. Taking actions which seem like the kind of thing your guy would do isn't the point, simply getting the thing that player wants in the scene is the point and the tropes happen as a result.

A really good design doesn't reward Peter Parker for angsting about his personal life, it rewards him for, say, trying to meet commitments and punishes him for failing so the angst will just happen--along with a lot of other things characteristic of the genre. It requires some insight into where a story comes from, not just listing tropes and incentivizing them.

Turns out the implied trad engine "Decide what you want, when you get it gain xp" is actually tremendously flexible and powerful for both action and drama.



Ok, but who cares?

Lots of people like PTA games and are perfectly happy with means-incentives. So what's the problem? Nothing if you're them--but if you like games that push you to do things you wouldn't do without the game or have a lot of emergent mayhem, they can be a little thin. Means incentives don't push invention beyond the expected limits of the genre--any invention is mere gravy. Ends incentives tell you "The standard trope didn't work, think harder".

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In other news, INTERNATIONAL LOTFP FANS: if you buy a shirt before wednesday you get free shipping WORLDWIDE on everything in the package INCLUDING BOOKS.


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*See also:

15 comments:

S. P. said...

A friend of mine ran a couple of sessions of World Wide Wrestling a couple of years ago, and the most salient critique was one of the players saying, "I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure if we were ever playing it correctly." That seems like a severe storygame problem — the highly-specialized jargon and decoupled action-and-narrative economy makes the whole thing super-abstract. My constant anxiety as a long-running Dungeon World GM was trying to figure out if a Move just triggered or not. I always know when dice are needed in D&D.
It's much more explicit about how and when its rules work.

Anonymous said...

"Wrestling is fake."

No. Wrestling is not fake.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrestling

Professional wrestling is...
a form of entertainment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_wrestling

Horrible Old Man said...

Blargh blargh blargh

PseudoFenton said...

Okay. So basically we should run a traditional RPG for our wrestling games where the focus follows the out-of-the-ring characters and story arcs as well as the wrestling matches themselves.

Except, we should totally swap to this PTA Pro Wrestling game system when we step into the ring, because its all for show and "fake", but its not trying to muster logical and coherent combat or characterization, its there for flare and spectacle to serve up a purely superficial entertainment.

That actually works really well. It also means that you now do have incentive to injure and take out other wrestlers in the ring, as you're playing an entirely different "game" outside of the ring (which you can spend game time on). Whilst your in-ring persona probably doesn't want or need to genuinely injure another performer - your out-of-ring characters actually might want to take out a rival or hinder their limelight time, which gives weight and import to if that rivalry is real or just part of the wrestling fiction.

If I ever run a GLOW like game, this may well be how I do it (with massive hacking up and stitching together to make a hybrid system that's coherent and can float stats back and forth properly, no doubt - but still, a good platform to build from).

McCabre said...

So obviously I'm not familiar with the pacing of your game, but I could see a lot of your complaints about the game in particular getting smoothed over by getting a bit more into the overarching entertainment of wrestling

It's not like every move is a show stopper in a real match, you're just building tension for the real heat so the crazy stuff actually has impact on the audience. If you start off trading finishers there's nowhere to go for the next ten to twenty five minutes.

The outside the ring stuff is also pretty important - nobody will want to do crazy moves with you if they think you're an idiot, and you're more likely to try something crazy with a trusted friend or respected colleague than some new guy.

Wrestling as a career seems like a means rewarded lifestyle, and in-ring and outside of the ring have different values to different guys, so a means based reward system makes a lot of sense from here.

Zak Sabbath said...

@MCCabre

" could see a lot of your complaints about the game in particular getting smoothed over by getting a bit more into the overarching entertainment of wrestling
"

It's not intelligent to assume that we didn't do that.

And since so many of the problems were with the system not the set-up (and wrote that) it's strange to suggest that redoing the setup alone would fix that.

Zak Sabbath said...

@savagecheerleader

You didn't address the response to the last comment you made...

http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2016/11/and-award-for-worst-voice-in-gaming.html

...so you're banned until you do that.

Nobody is allowed to dodge questions or ignore points here.

McCabre said...

I was unclear or spoke incorrectly, I don't mean just story lines and character drama - I don't really see any system blocking a motivated player from getting into that stuff.

I meant more like how matches have beginnings, middles and ends. Chucking lariats back and forth is mechanically easy and also the sort of thing you see in wrestling to build the excitement. It lines up with the whole social disincentive thing you were talking about. Shit like "I set up a table" seems easy to resolve (there is now a table outside the ring) and logically has a huge impact on how exciting a match is (I can't wait to see someone go through this table). Similarly, it can't just be big moves back and forth all night, the audience will get tired and stop enjoying it.

Since nobody is actually getting hurt in wrestling and everyone spends huge chunks of time pretending to be knocked out, I figured you were modifying the combat system anyways.

Zak Sabbath said...

@McCabre

No, you're not understanding at all.

The game is published as a wrestling game--nothing was modified. I don't have any idea what you're thinking went on or what you're alleged solution is supposed to be since it sounds like you didn't read the entry you're commenting on and inventing details.

OtspIII said...

I've been playing a fair bit of Torchbearer lately and have been wrestling with similar issues (although with Torchbearer the reward structure is weird and feels more like mitigation than rewards, but I think it's functionally close enough to be relevant). The game is so system mastery focused that I do often feel discouraged when it comes to coming up with strange schemes to overcome bad situations--although there are some mechanics that give bonuses for being clever in-world (most notably the helping mechanic), they feel capped in a way that sits weird with me. For a while I was getting pretty down on the game.

What I realized, though, was that this was largely me coming at the game from the wrong angle. I'm used to schemes being there in large part to give me mechanical bonuses, and that's not really a big part of TB, but they're still real useful at controlling framing, which is still pretty vital.

Like, you gave the example before about riding a horse and shooting a bow at a big slow monster with no ranged attack. While it might be true that coming up with the plan doesn't really change your odds of 'succeeding', it can and should change what 'succeeding' even means. Failing a fight against a monster using that plan maybe means that you underestimated how many arrows you needed to bring and you have to fall back for the day or that it took so long that you attracted the attention of a third party that evolves the encounter, as opposed to just being torn apart and eaten. Maybe if it's a PbtA game it uses a different move, or if it's Torchbearer it becomes a single test rather than an extended encounter.

This does get weirder when it comes to reward structures, though--it implies to me that the bigger reward then becomes the narrative accomplishments, and that the means rewards are less the goal and more in the moment encouragement? Which I'm of mixed feeling about, but not necessarily against.

I could see this working kind of badly with a game like the one you played, where the focus of the game is too tightly constrained; if the goal of the game has to be narrative, but the framing of the game is too tightly controlled and the 'default goal' isn't really compelling or is too tightly tied to mechanics then I can see the whole thing fighting against itself pretty hard.

I don't know--I'm still evolving my thoughts on this topic. Torchbearer is weird because it pretends to be so similar to my favorite way of playing, but it's really something super super different, so it's taking me a while to figure out how I feel about the game on its own terms.

As a side note, come on man--what's with the storygamers being unintelligent shit? Ignoring the fact that runs directly counter my experiences, dropping little tribal snipes like that directly contradicts your stated goal of creating a consensus conversation on design topics; it makes it really hard for me to cite this article without derailing whatever conversation I'm having.

Zak Sabbath said...

@OtspIII

1. The Torchbearer thing seems related to tactical transparency http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2018/10/drunk-prone-on-fire-tactical.html which in turn is related to "What is my in-character goal here and how do I get to it?" being a headspace i wanna be in and which those games deny me.

2. "what's with the storygamers being unintelligent shit?" This is not "shit". This is what I said:

"Storygames are especially fond of rewarding means-over-ends, because, so far as I can tell from their discussions online....A disproportionate number of them aren't very intelligent, "

This is absolutely 100% entirely in line with my observations. Since so many of your observations were on Something Awful /tg I can't see how you might've failed to notice this.

If you bring me intelligent storygamers who can answer questions the way most gamers can without resorting to fleeing, personal attacks, etc. I'd be happy to revise my opinion, but so far I can count the ones who can't on one hand.

And, in fact: "it makes it really hard for me to cite this article without derailing whatever conversation I'm having." is a great example: if a person reads this article and is turned off by me going "In my personal experience I've met a disproportionate number of stupid storygamers" rather than simply asking me who I've met and how this opinion developed then they are objectively not intelligent.

"contradicts your stated goal of creating a consensus conversation on design topic"

Not at all. One way to create a consensus conversation is to bring in the stupid and make them less stupid (many people tried this including me, in 10 years it hasn't worked). The other way is to point out the stupid are stupid until everyone intelligent ignores them and the conversation an run roughshod over their desires and complaints--which is faster and has worked better.

I am not into creating consensus with Republicans, I'm into pushing the conversation past them and they can change or be ignored--same with the mainstream of storygamers.

You should address these points.

OtspIII said...

1) I guess what I feel about the headspace in storygames is that the ability to be tactical in a non system-mastery way is still there, but it's different enough that it took me a while to appreciate it. It just puts a lot more emphasis on the 'what are you trying to accomplish' phase of conflict resolution--you can still layer advantages to yourself into your description of what you do, but it just changes the stakes of the outcomes rather than changing the likelihood of a success or failure.

I'm pretty sure I still prefer the old school style of play for generating that headspace, but I don't think it's fair to say that storygames actively deny it.

2) I don't think it's an issue of intelligence so much as an issue of values. You're extremely purist when it comes to RPG theory discussions--you have a larger intent to your discussions that you have a very clear image of and that you actively pursue. A lot of discussion elsewhere tends to be more of a blend of chatting/blowing off steam/etc with theory as a nice thing that happens sometimes. My issue with the Trad Games forum on SA wasn't that they weren't smart (I think there were plenty of posters who were plenty smart), it was that their values and goals were suspect ("let's find shitty people to mock" easily drifted into "let's find anyone not like us to mock").

Different spaces get to pick their different conversation-values. You definitely have your rules for posting here, in your space, and that's a good thing. Other places have different (often much more implicit) rules, and that's good too. A diversity of approaches creates a better conversation, even if some of the approaches create way more noise than signal. (Although I'm not defending the mockery approach--just that places that are as much blowing off steam as theory can still create valuable theory mixed in with the chatter).

I actually think a lot of the frustration you hit in online discussions comes from you coming to other spaces online and having culture clash in how you run a discussion; it's one thing to demand that people discuss things thoroughly and methodically on your blog, and another to go onto an existing forum and insist that everyone there has to change their posting style to match yours there.

I'd also object to conflating storygamers with Republicans. I think that the underlying values of Republicans are fundamentally at odds with my values, and that Republicans getting their way harms me and people I care about. I think that the headspace storygamers are chasing is different than my favorite one, but is still pretty fun to hang out in and can 100% coexist with the headspace I'm most interested in theorizing about facilitating, and I think that cross-pollination between the two spaces is actively beneficial to both.

Zak Sabbath said...

@OTSPIII

1. I think a lot of affordances for creating tha headspace are not there, and affordances for other ones are. Its a matter of degree but an undeniable matter

2. "their values and goals were suspect ("let's find shitty people to mock" easily drifted into "let's find anyone not like us to mock")."

These activities aren't smart

"Different spaces get to pick their different conversation-values."

Yes and they have chosen ones that are stupid.


" Other places have different (often much more implicit) rules, and that's good too."

No: they are bad and have lead to bad outcomes repeatedly over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and

Anonymous said...

I've had experiences similar to yours with other PbtA games, where at the end of the session I felt meh and never wanted to play the game again. Key things I can pull from those mediocre/bad experiences was that it felt more like a project meeting than a game where exciting shit was supposed to happen. The explosion of PbtA games felt like what happened right after the D&D and the OGL. There were a ton of products on the market and most of them were not good.

I haven't played WWW yet. I have the book but I haven't delved deeply into it. I won't address the specific issues with it, but I have played other PbtA games which are less means and more goals oriented. A good example is The Sprawl which is about cyberpunk badasses making a score and getting paid. Another one would be Monster of the Week, which as you can guess by its name, is about killing bad monsters a la Supernatural/X-Files/etc. In my experience with these two games, I've seen that results are much more important than means. I've also seen that what the player wants aligns with what the PC wants ("I like a kind of cyberpunk, i think these kinds of megacorps are bad/worth heisting, I like to have fun kicking ass.") The clock system in The Sprawl is better than most other PbtA games the results of the countdown is hidden from the players. They have a sense of the the rising pressure but no idea of what's going to happen. Therefore mayhem and fun.

Zak Sabbath said...

@OTSPIII

And, in case you missed it the first 4000 times I said it:

Even if storygamer online spaces are fun to hang out in, the fact that people can lash out at people outside them with impunity complete invalidates those spaces and invalidates everyone inside them.

Like: we're not worried about whether Nazi spaces are comfortable for NAzis.