Expectations, Authority, and SIS Clash

Started by Irminsul, April 08, 2011, 03:29:38 AM

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So we are playing Apocalypse World and it is great fun... now. We've played 3 sessions, I think? And I'm starting to think I may take my RP games too seriously sometimes. Or rather that my expectations are unrealistic, at least with this group.

As a group we always seem to be on different pages with every game we play in regards to tone and occasionally even genre, color, and pretty much everything relating to the fiction. To the point were if it were a movie it would definitely be a "B" movie and you'd leave saying, "were there 4 writers for this film who didn't even talk to each other?".

Color is skipped over in favor of dice rolling it seems. Sometimes I don't know where my character is within the fiction of the game or even an NPC's gender my character is talking to. In a Burning Wheel game I thought we were in a debate (Duel of Wits) on the streets, a sort of public rap-off to gain a reputation, but later in the scene it became apparent we weren't on the streets and were told it was actually the senate building.

But the group is a total blast at the same time. We laugh all the time. But is there ever any emotion other than laughing at the absurdity? Not that I can remember. Serious characters not allowed it seems. But again maybe that isn't what they want. In fact I'm pretty sure most of them would be labeled as beer & pretzel gamers in that they don't think about gaming except when they are, you know, gaming. Again I probably take my gaming too "seriously".

For example in Apocalypse World we were given playbooks to choose from and immediately nobody wanted to choose a name or clothing or anything "color" related from the lists. They chose what I'd consider to be "normal" modern names. Except me that is, I like the lists, they give neat fictional cues. Okay fine, its not really a rule or anything; well, normally fine anyway. But this was the start (in this game) of how I just wasn't on the same page as the group again. And even the group seems to be at odds with each other in regards to tone sometimes.

But I think they enjoy that craziness? And maybe that absurd tone is what they want?

I was expecting the characters to be "real" in the sense that they would act in believable ways. Get angry, scared, whatever emotional response when appropriate. You know like the book says for the players and the MC: "play the characters as though they were real people".

The best way to sum up the characterizations is grindhouse film. Violent, gory, and completely unreasonable in an absurd way. We only use Go Aggro to get in that first "free" shot without retribution it seems. Seize by Force is potentially far too common. And manipulation or seduction I don't think we've used yet because the MC characters don't seem to want anything...

Well, there was Roark the bar owner. He blamed the Hocus' cult for burning down his bar and pulled out a sawed off shotgun on him. The Hocus Manipulated Roark and got him to back down. Then he killed Roark. Sigh. Oh well. The one time I felt an MC character almost felt real and he got, like, a minute of screen time.

But then that seems to be the theme for this game (I say non-judgmentally): we are a bunch of locusts who destroy and devour until moving on to our next place to destroy and devour.

I've played with this group for a little over a year now. Justin is MCing the game and is the usual GM for any of our games. We've talked and he has admitted that his particular brand of gamer-baggage (hey, I have plenty myself!) makes him very leering of anything even resembling a potential railroad, but unfortunately that means he doesn't use his authority, like, ever. No Big Picture, no prep, nothing. It would be seen as railroading to him.

The other players are: Eric, Andrew, Erica, Nick, and I'm Brandon - aka the problem here - and older than the others by about a decade.

Eric enjoys being silly and/or over-the-top. Voices, characterization, everything. He is playing a Hocus with a sex and drug cult. The silliness comes from STDs and general sex jokes.

Andrew is quiet without being a Turtle, and his characters are more subtle usually. He plays a Hoarder and decided on a Foghorn Leghorn mixed with Mark Twain kind of voice. And his suggestion on currency was hair and we went with it. Silly? I'm not sure how I feel about it honestly. Its not like bottle caps would be any less silly.

Erica (Battlebabe) and Nick (Angel) are very new to the group but seem to be fitting in well so I can't say much about them.

Myself? I'm old and curmudgeon-y. I think I want more believable characters that have to make painful emotional choices and are changed through play. They view challenges mechanically it seems. They like to marshal resources to overcome obstacles, but injecting emotions isn't something they do.

Anyway, I'm playing a Chopper who I envisioned as being weary of his hard mercenary life on the roads, yet knowing that he has to do something more with it before dying. Maybe make the world a better place and change is a-comin'. Now, I say sadly, I just play him as a crazed cannibal with a gang of vicious jackals and kill pretty much everything I run across much to my dismay.

See the MC characters don't really reason. They don't care if they die. In fact their first reaction is usually to insult people, pull out their gun, and then die in a spatter of gore nearly every time. Outnumbered? They insult or shoot first and... die. It is exciting! But maybe not very "real".

I've talked with Justin, who might even chime in here, about it and he admitted he read ApocWorld and immediately thought it was supposed to be ran like an exploitation film. I mean it has mohawks, chainsaws, crazy psychers, and whatnot right? Crazy stuff for sure! But I read it differently and my expectations were shattered on contact.

Another game was "Deadwood Files" our Dresden Files game. Justin was running, and again and there was Eric, Andrew, Jack (who is no longer gaming with us), and myself.

I was told the game was going to be fairly normal old west fair with magic and monsters. No wushu wire fighting for example. Once again our characters were a motley crew that didn't really mesh. Our tone seemed to be just slightly off from one another. I played a reformed mountain man turned monster turned monster hunter. Jack played a young knight seeking to weed out evil. Andrew played a ghost-whisperer alcoholic. And Eric played a gambler touched by the Fey.

They worked on paper. Heck that is why the game has that Phase... erm phase of character generation. But in play we didn't really mesh. We almost seemed like strangers who had these fake backgrounds. But I digress into another topic.

So: immediately Eric's character is asked to sell some guns for a merchant who wants to unload his overstock of crappy guns. So Eric has his character set up a spectacle to show off the guns. Eric outlines his plan and I suggest that I can help, but I'm shot down, because he can do this himself. So he shoots one of the guns and uses his Fey magic to make a tree explode, then a rock, then a hat thrown in the air. Explosions everywhere! The crowd goes wild and buys the whole stock of pistols. All of us have a blast at Eric's vivid descriptions and funny speech and we all laugh around the table. It was fun...

"Okay, but", I say to myself on the drive home, "that wasn't exactly the right tone was it?". And then I didn't really want to play the game. It had been ruined for me. That delicate tone was tainted for me. My expectations hadn't been met.

I've ran Burning Wheel a few times and it was generally disastrous. Color is ignored. NPCs are just there to be killed. Any attempt at a serious scene is made silly. Emotional choices are ignored. Et cetera.

I've gotten over it. Like I said: I'm having a blast and can't wait to see what happens next in the Apocalypse World game. So what's the problem? Well, I want to know if there is a way to get us all on the same page. But then I'm not sure any discussion would even be welcome, I can feel it would be met with "dude, your totally bringing us down".

And again maybe I know the answer: it is just me not on the same page. Like I said: I'm probably taking the games too seriously and expecting something I shouldn't be.

And hey! It was Cathartic to write that out at least!


I know exactly what you are talking about, and stock answer is 'get another group that wants to play like you do', which for various reasons simply isnt that easy depending on your situation.  so we'll assume that is out of the equation for now.

I mean, one thing you CAN do is GM yourself.  'hey guys, would you like to play this game, and Im going to run it in this particular way'. 

Im writing my own game that tries very hard to address getting the players on the same page and getting the characters to be self-driven in interesting ways.  Maybe it can be of help to you.  You could play it and give me feedback, or simply try some of the methods I have in there in whatever games you are playing.  but I would GM it myself if I was you.

The pretty 'game setup' file is here:   https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B5W32IfgIIkrOWYxNjg2MDEtZWQ0OS00YmIxLTk5ZTYtNDVmZjY0NWMyYjY3&hl=en&authkey=CLaJ4P4J

and the yet to be prettified, first draft of the entire game is in my sig. 


Gonzo Apocalypse World? Sure. Also: a game of Apocalypse World can sometimes take 4 or 5 sessions to jell into a situation that all the players are into.

Here's a couple of questions for you:

1. What was the first session like? You know, the 'walk around the setting with your characters and see what a standard day in their life is like' bit?

2. I'd love to hear from Justin about how he's prepping fronts and threats for this game.

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Justin Smith

Quote from: hix on April 08, 2011, 04:55:46 AM
2. I'd love to hear from Justin about how he's prepping fronts and threats for this game.

Hey! This is the MC of the AW game, Justin! I prep Fronts/Threats out of the actions the players take, the questions I've asked, and how I think the world would react. I use Threats/Fronts as ammo for moves to make during the session. They've been killing a bunch of people, well how about a Brutes - Mob in the way. Without leaders they are aimless and afraid. That is about how far I take any pregame prep, during the game I either expand upon it or just let it happen, or I'll ignore it because play isn't heading that way.

That is about how far I go with it.


Thanks, Justin! How are you finding the threat moves are working for you? And are you using any countdown clocks?

And how's the game working for you, as MC?

--- --- ---

I realised I had another couple of questions, just to get a sense of how your group's working:

3. What was it like when you all assigned Hx to each other in the first session. Did you build up a sense of how everyone knew each other?

3a. What sort of conversations go down between the group when it comes to assigning Hx at the end of a session? Do you refer to the events you've just played through? Or is assigning Hx arbitrary, or a matter of going for the funniest joke, or something?

4. How do people in the group react when it comes time to spend advances to buy moves and other stuff? Are people building up coherent ideas about what makes their characters cool or badasses?


5. ... and at the start of a session, when you're highlighting stats, what sort of conversations do you guys have about the process of doing that. Do you try and get it out of the way as quickly as possible, or talk about what you'd like each other's characters to be good at during the session, or what?

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Justin Smith

I really like the Threat Moves! It really gives me cool images and ideas to bring into play. I am not using Countdown Clocks yet, I want to see how pieces fall together this session before I create one. I have some rough ideas sketched out, but I want to see how play proceeds first.

As an MC, I am having a lot of fun. Though I'm kinda feeling overwhelmed at times (5 players, is a lot for me), but the moves helped a lot in that regard. If I begin to feel like its too much, I can just look down and go BAM! with something cool.

For an MC stand point, the Hx questions plays into how I use moves to pits the players interests against each. At the end of a session, they looked at who spent the most time with each other, and did things together. So they were referencing in game events. But hey, this is from an MC P.O.V.

On the advancement, I've been listening to what they think is cool and foreshadowing peoples advancements, so that when they unlock having a gang, the possibility of one would've been announced.

Ah! I forgot to the highlighting at the beginning of a session! My bad.


Weird. This somehow turned into a "help my AW game" thread, which isn't the issue. The game is fine and I'm enjoying myself! So I don't think prep has much to do with expectations or SIS clash. Although it might be a symptom of Authority issues?

But, I'll devolve here and say that on the prep side: I think you are being a little, not dishonest, Justin but maybe obfuscating what is happening in "prep". Mainly because you've admitted to me that you don't prep per se. You see prep as a potential railroad and avoid it. I think you daydream, but an actual Front is not something you've written out as far as I know.

But again I feel that is a complete side issue, at least as far as I'm concerned. I think that this symptom is actually one of Justin's great strengths as a Game Master: his ability to run completely un-prepped, completely on the fly, and by the seat of his pants. He is never caught with his pants down because he can't be! Again: this is a strength!

I'm talking about the Authority to enforce tone specifically. Or maybe genre color. SIS stuff. Like we are all on different pages so what the SIS "looks" like is a jumble of silly, absurd, serious, over-the-top, realistic, et cetera and my expectations, meaning what I expected the game to be about, color, or even genre, are then not met.

Like how I read Apocalypse World and had a vastly different view than Justin did: he saw grindhouse over-the-top blood and guts crazy absurdity; I saw specifically the part that said: "make the characters seem real" as I quoted in the OP. Therefore my expectations were not met.

I believe Justin just "goes with the flow" and adds to whatever the players are doing. If they are being crazy cannibal killers then he accommodates for that and gives the players "what they want". This can be a good thing! But sometimes it is dizzying to me, to me, because it turns the fiction into a jumble of visions that don't mesh, for me.

Partially this is due to expectations as I said earlier.

For example we played Sorcerer for maybe 30 minutes until the game fell apart. Justin and I have discussed this and I'm not blaming anyone here. But I think what happened was everyone heard "Demon" and thought scary monster that wants to eat souls, kill people, whatever. In actuality I am now thinking that Demons could have wants to help people, or save kittens, or seek knowledge or whatever. All of those "could" get a character in trouble - which I think is the point. Like I said: we didn't exactly get to play long before our characters gave in to our demons and once again devolved into a gore-fest and killed NPCs and each other. I know I didn't realize I was supposed to refuse my characters Demon, that was never stated. So we all just had fun "being evil".

FreeMarket is another example, and maybe the best, although that would be a much longer play report. I'd be fine going into it if anyone wants. Simply put: my expectations compared to the rest of the group's, including Justin's, was all over the board as could be seen by what was going on in the fiction.


I feel I need to state this: I also don't want this to change into a "help Justin become a different type of GM" (note that I purposefully avoided "better") thread. Justin is good, great even, at what he is good at which is high-octane fast-paced over-the-top action. We all have our weaknesses and strengths and styles of Gming yeah. Me, myself, and I just need to be aware of this and not expect dramatic emotional moments or difficult emotional choices -- which Justin and I have also discussed at great lengths in person. (You should see our conversation on "Does character exist?" and "Why don't your characters portray any emotion and why can't you become emotionally attached to you character and advocate for them?").

As far as prep goes: I'd say in a favorable light that who cares if you, Justin, can't or choose not to craft Bangs or Fronts or whatever. Maybe it just isn't your style. I certainly shouldn't, even if I do, care. But...

By "obfuscating what is happening in prep" I mean you may have overstated your actual prep. For example: you said you "foreshadow" getting gangs and such. I disagree, in as firm but nice a way as I can. For example: I reached an advance for my Chopper and I said, "hey I think I'll take an extra 20 dudes for my biker gang". So you had me find them as I scouted out the area the gasoline trade was going to go down. At no time before that did you say, "there is a gang of bikers out in the swamps" before I had taken that advance. Just sayin'. This is not in any way an issue, it worked out perfectly, I'm just calling you out on what you claim you prep, and I could go on. Okay?

Another potential issue that I mentioned in the OP but didn't expand too much on is the lack of color. We all tend to avoid, no more like forget, anything that might even resemble descriptions, which at times causes fiction confusion which then ripples into the SIS for me. I think we get caught up in the ultra violence and crazy quick pace of the games and just don't take time to calm down and describe stuff. I'm specifically calling this out because I feel this might be why the SIS feels so jumbled to me. Like we might make time to have a color scene occasionally or take a second or two to describe the scenes.

A great example to my mind on different expectations is our FreeMarket game. Everyone was on completely different pages in-game and out I feel:
I was playing a face-man trying to drum up patrons for our MRCZ, which was some sort of "pocket pet" thing and dealing with a rival from my past.
Eric's character was making drugs and trying to, I dunno, get people high maybe? I think he also had a bit of a propaganda thing going on too, but I don't recall exactly what or why.
Andrew was chasing after some lost love and a weird animal. I'm not sure what was going on there. But it seemed like he was going for something with a deeper emotional drama factor which was cool, even if it was a bit out of place.
And Jack, poor Jack, was trying to run the Printing side of things by himself and make pocket pets, you know like we were supposed to do, but everyone was doing their own thing.
See, nobody was really participating in what the MRCZ was about. What I felt the game should be focusing on, so my expectations were again not met. Even though we sat and talked about what we wanted to do before we started playing and came up with the MRCZ idea.

I honestly don't have any clue why we would have been upgraded to the next MRCZ tier. We didn't do what we set out to do, heck we didn't do much of anything useful! Other than going after strange side-plots anyway. Then there was some fictional cues that were off to me, and once again I think only me: like, for example, we shared our dorm with a group of hygiene-challenged comic book geeks and my character was killed by a plastic lightsaber. Yeah, it was funny. Maybe, again, I just wasn't expecting absurd. But the comic book MRCZ was completely unreasonable when we/I tried to talk to them. They seemed like they were there just to be a gamer joke and were nearly sociopaths and suicidal in their actions. Again to my mind anyway.

And  just to be clear: "Gonzo Apocalypse World" isn't the issue here. I'm not saying we are playing wrong or that I'm not having fun. Not at all! But that I had different expectations. It is that I was expecting that characters would act like real people because that is what the AW book says in the player section and the MC section. At best all of the characters are caricatures. I expected, as the AW book states: for characters to be played "as though they are real people".

Erik Weissengruber

Kudos to alll of you for putting your table's problems out there for everyone to see.

Even if you talk out this stuff face to face later, I would like to hear your group's response to the issues raised here.

My Freemarket experience is parallel to yours.  I have to get Colour agreement before I ever start running that game again.  I need to share genetic engineering stuff and film clips if that's what I want to see games, and I sure want to see youtube videos of bizzare sexy performance art or twisted robot combat if that is what the players want to be doing.


Thanks for the clarification about what you want out of the thread, Irminsul. I'm not a fan of the "You're playing it wrong; I will help you" responses, either!

If it helps, with all of the questions I was asking I'm trying to visualise what happens at the table when you guys sit down to play (I sometimes find that hard to do just from reading actual play reports!). Hx, advances, and highlighting stats are all points where the game's mechanics interact with the game's fiction really lightly, and I'm just curious about whether your group responds to those moments with the same sense of tone-clash.

Again, to help me visualise things: What's it like during this game where everyone at the table, including you, thinks that what's going on in the story is awesome? When everyone agrees that (despite their differences in tone) that the story is cool or hilarious or fun? Like, what do you say to each other? How do you express your approval to each other? and what sort of events in the game trigger it?

Oh, and welcome to the Forge, Justin! (And Irminsul, if someone hasn't welcomed you before now.)

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg