Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Ordinary World: Things Get Serious in The 'Hood

Apocalypse World is a very hackable system,  as there are some clear modular components to be changed for whatever type of game you want to create:

  • Stats
  • Moves
  • Playbooks
Creating an urban crime hack meant making decisions about what form those modules would take in the game I was looking for and I already had a clear idea about what I wanted some of them to be:

  • There was always going to be a reputation-style stat, for measuring how well known and respected you were.
  • There had to be a move for doing things aggressively and one for doing things on the sly.
  • I definitely wanted a gang-leader and a bent police office in the mix.

Taking those goals as the foundations of my design process, I started a fresh sheet on my doodle pad and started writing down names for stats, moves and playbooks. The ideas I came up with then have pretty much stayed part of the game throughout, but a lot of the names changed as I tried out different sounds and looks for them; I settled on The Bastion very early on as a cheeky little nod to my favourite PC game. Other than that, it was mostly a matter of cropping, e.g. Plan B was originally go to Plan B and was a slightly messier move that didn't require MC input.

The original list of playbooks had one idea that got dropped pretty quickly, as I felt The Escort was too weak compared to the others and was liable to end up as a victim rather than a mover & shaker, but Charles Perez suggested The Pimp and I kicked myself for not seeing that sooner. Throughout the process, I created rules and playbooks in parallel, so that the needs of the characters could inform the game what it should do as much as the game rules could inform the playbooks how they should be shaped. This complicit, reciprocal design process lead to the late addition of one more playbook, The Shark, whose development shadowed the refining of the rules on dough and vice versa.

Getting the economy of the 'hood nailed down was the toughest challenge: I have an aversion to bean-counting, so just tracking currency earned and spent and coming up with a table of goods & prices was never going to happen. I favoured a very abstract system for a while, where dough was akin to heat and rose or fell depending on what you were doing, and when you paid cash, you had to roll+dough to determine the quality of what you bought and any conditions attached to it. I also looked at using dough in a way like the strings in Monsterhearts, so that you could spend dough to give a bonus to a roll and for other things too, but neither option ever got seriously developed. Both had things to recommend them, but they also had the downside of making dough too unreliable, i.e. spending it didn't guarantee you'd get anything at all as a result, which I really hated. The current pay cash move, after a few tweaks, became the ultimate answer to that: if you've worked for your dough, then it works for you, every time, as long as you have enough of it.

The other big change to the hack, which occurred very late on, was in the relationship between heat & experience: until a few months ago, you advanced when experience+heat reached 5+, at which point you reset your experience to zero, but not your heat. Instead of marking experience when you took heat, you marked it when you paid cash: the intent was to drive play towards two goals, either hanging onto what you've got (restoring your livelihood) or getting rich and spreading the wealth (pay cash). A little play experience not only showed that this was somewhat clumsy to execute in practice, but it also gave players little motivation to gain heat, so they often took low-risk strategies: it showed me that my own assumptions were back-to-front, so I changed how all of that worked, in order to reward players for taking heat, and also rewrote the MC's advice for giving it out. Always turn up the heat if you can, it's relatively easy to get rid of (take the heat off or lie low) and it creates more debt and payback in the process.

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