Sunday, 27 April 2014

Reap What You Sow: Debt and Payback in The 'Hood

Getting by in the 'hood isn't just about what you owe, it's about who you owe: at almost every step in every scheme, you've got to be thinking who is this gonna piss off? And how can I sweeten things with them again? It's about more than just money, there's the complex tangle of favours and the the history of trust and betrayal to work through.

Debt began life as just a placeholder name for the standard Hx rules from Apocalypse World: one of the underlying principles of The 'Hood is that it's all about the money, so it seemed natural to reflect that in the terms used where possible. Whereas history says you know each other, debt says you owe each other, but to begin with there wasn't more to it than that shift in emphasis for colour purposes. Debt first became an alternative advancement track when I was still playing about with the relationship between heat and experience; it struck me that part of growing up in the 'hood was learning tricks from your friends, or just dropping them right in it and taking advantage of them. Debt advancements are all about getting something back from another PC for all the trouble they've caused you: it might be a small favour, like getting the best deal possible from them, or it could be a big thing like getting them to take the rap for you when you're close to being burned. The debt advancement track makes it easier to get moves from other playbooks, but it limits your choices to the playbooks your friends have: you can't just learn stuff out of thin air, you've got to have been watching someone else at work before you can do it.

Payback was never planned as part of the hack, it just emerged organically as I was writing moves down: something I have trouble with is coming up with consequences that are more narratively interesting than 'Take +1/-1 forward,' so in a couple of places I wrote things like "You've pissed someone off" or "You're going to owe someone for this." As I was going through the text on the second or third draft, I noticed there was an underlying principle there and decided to codify it in the rules: it took a couple of versions before I settled on the simple idea of the payback box you wrote names down in, but once I'd done so, it unlocked a lot of potential in many other moves, especially unique moves from playbooks like The Feelgood, The Pimp and The Go-Between.

From an MC's point of view, the payback box is a really powerful storytelling tool, as it constantly asks questions of the players:

Who is this person and how do you know them?
How are they affected by what you've done?
What are they going to want from you when they come to collect?

The only limit on how many names you can have in your payback box is the number of people that your character knows: every time you're told to mark someone for payback, you can make up another NPC, so you need never run out. The deal the MC offers you is, "Sure, you can do that, but first tell me who you've upset and how," then they get to throw that back at you later when you need it least.

Cashing Out
Here's a little bonus move that's never been playtested: it offers a sense of closure if you decide you want to try retiring your character safely instead of playing them until they go out or get burned.

When you cash out, roll+heat: on a miss, reset your heat to zero and retire your character peacefully somewhere out of the 'hood; on a hit, you're not out of the 'hood yet. On a 7-9, choose 1; on a 10+, choose 2; on a 12+, you get burned instead; if you somehow survive that, you're still in the 'hood but you can try cashing out again in a later session.

  • Take -2 dough.
  • You have to clear your payback box this session.
  • You have to reduce your heat to zero this session.
  • You have to ask someone for help: you must do whatever they demand in return.

When you retire, your lifestyle is locked into the level of wealth indicated by your dough, e.g. if you have 7 or more dough, then you are reasonably well-off and can enjoy a few luxuries, but if you have 0 dough, then you'll always just be clinging on and making do.

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