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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH7: The Gamesbow 5-7

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Sep 10, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


The theme this week is Success and Failure. These three games have mechanics for determining whether a player succeeds or fails, but unlike a traditional RPG, the mechanic isn’t used to fairly or accurately simulate any kind of action. It’s designed instead to accomplish the unique goals of the game–to introduce competition, hard choices, or tension into the game.

Interestingly, all of these games restrict their resolution mechanics to the players. In each case, the GM doesn’t have to try to hurt or kill a character–the GM introduces something that will hurt or kill a character unless the character’s actions prevent it. This delineates roles pretty clearly between GM and player: the GM’s job is to come up with problems. The player’s job is to come up with solutions. The GM’s rules help them tell whatever story they want, and the player’s rules help them tell a story specific to their character.

5.) Great Ork Gods (Introduced 2004)

Great Ork Gods is a bloodsoaked horse race between orkish warriors. Players play orks who are good at some things and bad at others, and partially their success or failure is based on those skills. But there’s more to it than that; in this game, screwing your friends over is baked into every level of the mechanics.

At the beginning of the game each player picks an Ork God from a selection on the table. Each Hod has a very particular sphere of influence–stealth, technology, killing, not dying, etc. Now, this God is emphatically not the player’s character. The player doesn’t roleplay the god in any meaningful sense. They’re all playing an ork more accurately, they’re playing a rotating selection of orks as each is burned, bashed, and broken under the wheels of treachery. Because whenever an ork tries to do something–sneak, operate a catapult, not die, etc–it’s the player with the relevant Ork God who decides how hard it will be.

In most games, without some clever balancing mechanic, this would overwhelmingly tip things towards player success. But Great Ork Gods doesn’t risk that. It actually has to incentivize being lenient by awarding resources for doing so, because the game is structured–loose scorekeeping and all–as an outright contest between the orks involved. The game tends to have a pleasingly chaotic Mario Kart structure where characters are given easier difficulties to get ahead early on, harder difficulties once they approach the middle of the pack, and uniformly hard difficulties–plus extra bogeys in the form of something called Hate Points–once they’re the clear leader.

From a modern perspective, it’s interesting how GOG very nearly–but doesn’t quite–phase out the GM. As written, the GM’s job is to be the one jogging the players along. You throw in threats, you narrate goofy consequences, you award points–you’re the ringmaster, but you’re not really needed. You can clearly envision a version of this game where all of these responsibilities are spread out among the players. Now that games with no Game Masters are much more common, one wonders what GOG would be like if it were designed today.

6.) Apocalypse World (Introduced 2010)

Apocalypse World and its Powered by the Apocalypse derivations are something I’m particularly fascinated with. It’s a very rare bird, a story game explicitly built for campaign play–playing AW for only one session is fun, but it feels like a waste, something the designers clearly intended.

Games built for campaign play have traditionally sought greater mechanical depth–they know a lot of things can and will happen in a campaign, so they take the natural and traditional step, which is attempt to make rules that accurately and fairly govern as many of those things as possible. A DM with mastery of the Dungeons and Dragons 3E core rulebooks can authoritatively resolve busking, crafting magical items, wrestling four-legged creatures, shooting from horseback, and breaking through a stone door with a hammer, all without the slightest improvisation or ad hoc messiness–if players feel something is too difficult or too easy, the DM can calmly point to the rule that ensures it is so. Er…once they find it.

This is done for three reasons. Firstly, so that players and DMs can introduce esoteric things into a sprawling campaign, like underwater combats and horse battles, without worrying about how to represent them. Secondly, so that every action taken is in theory balanced and should feel fair within the established framework of the rules, Thirdly, because ensuring that every threat conceivable is pinned down and predetermined makes facing one of these threats decidedly more tense. In a pure story game death can be sidled away from or ignored, but a player knows that when that tiger hits, he does the damage he does–and when those hit points run out, your character is dead.

Apocalypse World has takes a different approach. Like most story games, it empowers players to steer events–and unlike most story games, it does so in a way that increases the sense of objective risk and danger. Every roll of the dice in Apocalypse World offers the prospect of customizable success to the player, but also carries the real possibility of messy and often mechanically-administrated failure.

In Apocalypse World, every time a player tries to influence the world by rolling dice she’s performing what’s called a “move.” Moves are predetermined. There’s a handful that every character can perform, like a Read a Situation, Read a Person, Take What You Want, Act Under Fire, etc. Rolling well enough with one of these moves means you get to pick a few somewhat general advantages you can get–you can do damage, ensure someone will take damage unless they do what you say, get to ask the GM questions from a list, avoid taking damage…generally speaking, no matter what you’re rolling you’ll get a choice of benefits if you succeed. The downside is, failure invariably makes the situation worse.

This even applies to things like combat. Sometimes a player rolls because otherwise, an enemy will inflict damage. In these cases, you generally choose a move that has a list of rewards including not taking any harm, and ideally includes other options–like inflicting harm or escaping a combat or securing a position.

In addition to general moves, each character belongs to an archetype called a “playbook” that has its own special moves. Often these moves can be customized at the beginning of the game, and that’s where some of my favorite moments emerge.

Let me give an example:

A few years ago I created an Apocalypse hack that cast the party as executives in an evil 1980s-by-way-of-RoboCop cyberpunk megacorp. One of the players chose to be the Keymaster, the playbook for the head of surveillance and security. It’s an interesting playbook in that the main move is more about leadership than direct action–the Keymaster influences his men, but often it’s his men who are taking direct action.

This was the central move I designed for the Keymaster. In the style of classic Apocalypse games, the language is a bit colorful.

SHITFUCKER BUTTON: The Keymaster has a security team (small squad 1-hurt 1-armor militarized expendable cohesive) that can be deployed with a roll +sharp. On a [roll of] 10+, you get all three. On a [roll of] 7-9, pick one. On a [roll lower than 7], you get none of them.

-They neutralize a target, acquire an objective, or secure an area.
-They don't make a fucking mess.
-They’re more discreet than herd of stampeding elephants.

At the beginning of the game you must choose two Perks and two Catches for your team.

-Your people are scary quick. (+fast)
-Your people can absolutely be counted on to subdue instead of kill when ordered. (-militarized)
-Your people are armed with only the best, top-of-the-line shit. (+1 hurt)
-Your people are armored like battleships. (+1 armor)
-You've got more guys than is reasonable. (-small +medium)

-Your people are sadistic motherfuckers when mommy and daddy aren't watching. (+brutal)
-Corporate doesn't trust the com systems, and any serious orders must be given in person. (-cohesive)
-Your people gossip like high teenagers. (+loudmouthed)
-Your people have a couple troublemakers they listen to instead of you sometimes. (+fractitious)
-It's hard to find replacements for your people on short notice, and casualties suck. (-expendable)

Most the +words, like “brutal” or “militarized,” don’t have an explicit mechanical effect–they’re just advice for the GM to decide what does and doesn’t go wrong when they’re used or, possibly, not used.

When the player wants to deploy the squad, he rolls two six-sided dice, adds his Sharp stat, and the operation goes smoothly or poorly in a manner befitting the qualities of his team. In my game, the player’s security detail was “armed with only the best” and included “more guys than was reasonable.” They were also “sadistic motherfuckers” known to “gossip like high teenagers.” These choices have no explicit mechanical impact, but since the GM has very little mechanical to focus on at all, it’s the GM’s full-time job to bring this story stuff to bear. I aimed not to disappoint. We flesh them out some more through conversation–the player shares that these security guards are not noted for their intellect, a detail I note but don’t give quite the level of prominence as the stuff on the sheet.

The team’s first deployment, and this player’s first roll in an Apocalypse World game, came about an hour into the first session. The objective was to kidnap an engineer for a rival firm so that his face could be stolen and transplanted onto a mole within the company. One player, the company’s calculating human resources manager, lured the engineer to the rooftop of the restaurant under the auspices of a dinner date. Another player, the head of R&D, was waiting in the lab with a prepped surgery. The plan: hit the target with a lightning-fast dogpile from the security detail and extract him in the company VTOL.

Things go pretty well with the dinner date. Then the Keymaster rolls his move…and gets a 7. Not great. Now he has to choose: does he achieve his basic objective, do his men cause no significant trouble, or does he ensure this thing doesn’t get back to him and the company? This is an important operation. Naturally, he chooses to acquire his objective–the engineer.

At the time the op begins, the Kemaster’s at home, drinking a beer and watching soccer. My narration is directed at the HR manage on the rooftop.

He sees his lovestruck target glance up from the chianti at the sky, narrow his eyes, and remark: “Hey, is that a VTOL? Think it’s a news crew? I heard traffic today was–“

A floodlight hits the rooftop. Downstairs: “BREACH! BREACH!”

Glass breaks. Flash bombs go on the ground floor of the restaurant. The target stumbles away from the table, knocking a full plate of spaghetti into the air, as the HR rep tries to figure out where he should be standing.


The VTOL swoops in–its jets lighting tables on fire. Six visored men jump out of the landing bay onto the roof and onto the panicking, marinara-soaked engineer. HR guy tries to step up to take command–and one of the goons tackles him and socks him in the jaw before stumbling off, either realizing his mistake or trying to look as though he’d made one. Meanwhile, as more flash bombs go off downstairs and no additional men appear:

“He’s reaching for–dammit! He’s gonna call–“

One of the goons fires a riot shotgun down into the dogpile. Seven times. The HR manager watches them shuffle a now-headless corpse onto the evac stretcher. From downstairs:

“No, that’s not a flash bomb, that’s a regular–“

A grenade goes off.


The VTOL takes off, leaving Hr guy stranded in a brilliant ball of gunfire .

Cut to the Keymaster. He’s sitting on his couch watching television. A call comes in from his co-worker, and he accepts it to be greeted with screeching and distortion:

“It’s a massacre over here! No way can we cover this up! And one of your goddamn goons punched me in the face!”

“Did you get his serial number?” groans the Keymaster.

“No! They covered them with tape!”

“Well, I’ll try to…”

Outside, through his open window, he hears a VTOL approach.

And land.

And then, a few moments later, his doorbell rings. Disbelieving, the Keymaster turns on his monitor–and sees a two goons in full regalia standing on the doorstop of his surburban residence, holding a dripping body bag, with a VTOL associated with a recent massacre parked on his lawn. He barks through the intercom:

“Take him to the lab! Not here! Never here!

The men briskly hustle back to the VTOL, leaving a trail of blood drops to be smeared by the sprinklers.

A few minutes later, the head of R&D–who has been waiting patiently, with tools, to graft the face of the engineer onto the company mole–is greeted by two helmetless goons and a dripping body bag. The R&D head’s thin smile slips a few degrees. Then the bag is unzipped.

“He has,” says R&D, “no head. I did not expect to have to clone a face. That will take time.” The goons look at each other. R&D notices there’s also an incision on the body’s abdomen. “What’s this here?”

“We, uh…” A goon coughs. “We had a bet on the way here. Me and Jim couldn’t agree on how many kidneys a guy has.”

R&D stares.

“We both lost, though. Turns out there’s two.”

R&D quietly unfolds his phone. Back home, the Keymaster, by now four beers in, receives a call: “I’m currently looking at one headless body, one security guard, and one cadaver for testing…”

In theory, a totally successful deployment of his men (which according to the rules should happen about half the time he sends them out) would look like this: men appear out of nowhere in huge quantities. Precise shots are fired. Somebody almost certainly dies, probably painfully, but only the person who was doing something they shouldn’t–any collateral damage will be restricted to broken jaws from people “interfering” or interns “accidentally” pepper-sprayed. The alarm goes off, the all-clear is sounded, and the body is whisked away while the men disperse. All week people hear security goons laughing and re-enacting the excitement while on patrol, smoking on the fire escape, or trying to beat free colas out of the vending machines.

Sometimes his men will create trouble even without being deployed. His team is huge, and they’ll be everywhere–getting in everyone’s way, harassing the employees of every department.

It’s funny–so much of this was GM fiat, but the fact that it sprang from choices made on a player’s roll creates a surprisingly strong feeling of causality. It can feel just as genuinely and manageably dangerous as a game like Dungeons and Dragons despite being nowhere near as fully realized. Part of this is that the game lays its groundwork: traditional concepts of health, wealth, and experience bars are all preserved, albeit broken to the will and vision of the game. Seeing a health tracker on your character sheet is a constant reminder that one bad decision could lead to a bad roll could lead to a hole the size of a coconut in your forehead, and seeing your experience and wealth next to it is a constant reminder of what would be lost.

I would caution that Apocalypse World is a hard game for a GM to grasp. It’s the worst of both worlds: there are rules, but they’re there to help players, not to help the GM figure out what to do or how to handle situations. I should admit that it took me quite a few readings and a few sessions to wrap my head around how the game works. I’d also point out that the default Apocalypse World game, the playsets and stats and moves you get when you buy the rulebook, is anything but generic; rather it has a very idiosyncratic vision. The stats are Weird, Hot, Sharp, Cool, and Hard. The moves are custom-tailored to a brutal unforgiving apocalyptic world and story. One of the expansions lets you play a marmot. Oh, and this game is emphatically not for children. I should probably point that out before you buy the book and scroll down to the part about Sex Moves.

7.) Dread (Introduced 2005)

There are games that do more mechanically to steer a story, but Dread is arguably the ultimate example of designing mechanics around producing emotions. Dread is a horror RPG. Its goal is to gradually escalate tension and create suspense over the course of the game.

Whenever players attempt an action, they draw logs from a Jenga tower. If the tower collapses, they’re either dead–or they will be. Which does work at creating suspense–I’d say it works surprisingly well, actually–but I’d also have to say nothing about a stacked Jenga tower has evoked actual horror for any of my groups, so I don’t know how I’d rate it in terms of being genuinely scary.

Still, if you’ve got a Jenga tower, you ought to try this thing at least once. It’s probably not a bad exercise as a GM, either–the simple mechanics will let you focus on the story, and since horror tends to be pretty formulaic and self-contained, that will probably be easier to pregenerate or improvise. The game only needs as much preparation as you decide it does.


Comments (25)

  1. Hector says:

    Ruts definitely knows how to pick some obscure, if interesting, games.

  2. Alan says:

    My experience is that Powered by the Apocalypse games often turn into a rolling trainwreck of chaos and panic. I view this as a feature. :-) In particular, if you’ve read John Rogers’s run on the official Dungeons & Dragons comic, that’s what it feels like.

    Powered by the Apocalypse games can be very hard to “get” as a GM. I’d been playing tabletop RPGs for decades when I read Apocalypse World, and I did not freaking get it. The later descendants tend to do a better job. The easiest to “get” I’ve actually played is Dungeon World, which applies the ideas to a more traditional D&D-like setting. However, it’s still a bit rough on helping the GM “get” it; I recommend the free Dungeon World Guide as a supplement. (Dungeon World also has the advantage that you can try it for free. There are multiple copies of the game online, free and legal.)

    The good news is that once you “get” one Apocalypse game, the rest suddenly become very clear. (In some ways, Dungeon World Guide is more about how to think like an Apocalypse GM than Dungeon World specific.)

    I love Dread, but find it a bit difficult to approach as a GM. I’ve now had a chance to play its direct descendant, The Dread Geas of Duke Vulku, and it seems like it would be more approachable. Dread Geas provides a much stronger (but simultaneously limiting) focus, and streamlines some of the more free-form parts.

    • Oh, I LOVE that comic series! So many D&D comics steer into the super-serious, or build heavily on world lore and history in the interest of tying it to the larger franchise, but that fifteen issue run felt the most like I was reading a couple of friends sitting down to roll some dice. The issues even came with stats for the main characters and the encounter setups. It was great because it was funny, but it never treated the threats or the dangers like jokes themselves.

      The only thing close to it I’ve found is “Rat Queens,” which is another great series, but maybe not quite as legible, if that makes any sense.

      • Noumenon72 says:

        I bet the readers of this blog would be the perfect audience for John Rogers’ Fell’s Five comics. They are character-driven, TV-funny (Rogers wrote for Leverage), coherently plotted, mechanically sound fantasy. Do, do pick them up in a humble bundle or something. Shamus, if you don’t own them, I will buy you a copy.

    • King Marth says:

      I really hated the sound of Apocalypse World after reading the Dungeon World Guide, because it takes away what I see as the very purpose of rules in an RPG: Giving you some sense of how the world your characters inhabit works. The Dungeon World Guide is very clear that the Moves that apply to a situation are entirely at the whim of the DM, and they are encouraged to make tasks easier or harder by simply using less or more Moves. As a player, this just confuses me; why should I bother with having rules, making plans, or just caring about the world when everything will just get harder or easier based on my success or lack thereof? The “Schrödinger’s trap” aspect of how traps cannot exist unless you fail at a task (including “looking for traps”) and thus trigger a hard move also fundamentally underlines that you aren’t in simulation-world anymore. You aren’t exploring a world that already exists, you are creating whatever is necessary to ensure spurious actions for the sake of caution are punished. Caution does not exist in this world, you take action because the loot will not exist unless you force it to exist, at mandated personal risk. No amount of cleverness will ever let you get ahead, things that can’t go wrong will go wrong if the story demands it.

      Then I got to play an Apocalypse World hack with an established group that already understood how it worked, and I felt better about it, because the point of these rules is to take a story which everyone already understands and attach die rolls after the fact to adjust how the script plays out. Moves are written to literally fall out of the narration and gameplay, and the move for “When the players look to you for guidance” really sold that for me. FATE just looks ugly to me now, especially because the hack in question stole FATE’s Aspects to use in AW style.

      • Felblood says:

        AW is basically designed to seem like something made of pure insanity, until that lightbulb moment, when it all clicks into place.

        The flow of narrative information is completely reversed, compared to old school games like DnD. Instead of having the DM build a world and declare an objective, the players choose their own goals, based on their personal vision of what their character wants and needs. The DM is mostly there to help you design and face the challenges that make your quest an adventure, and not just a trip to the supermarket.

        There’s a lot of weird and ugly hacks intrinsic to the way we design RPGs, and we’ve learned to just ignore them. when the DM designs an adventure, and the player needs to figure out why his Druid with Vow of Poverty cares about robbing this tomb, we just look the other way, becasue the party needs a healer.

        AW does not gloss over these details, and in-fact builds the game around them. Say, my character is a greedy rogue and his underworld contacts got him a map to a good tomb, but I’ll need a healer. How can I press Joe’s character into helping me? Blackmail?

        I think the later spinoffs did a better job of easing players of more traditional RPGs into the idea of making the world around the characters, instead of the other way around.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Next week: Pandemic

  4. Decius says:

    That description of an Apoc world roll is priceless. Also, it just sold +1 copy.

    • Cuthalion says:

      That was pretty hilarious.

      I got Dungeon World on sale after hearing a recorded game, but I’ve only tried to play it once, and it didn’t really get off the ground. Would be fun to try again though.

  5. Viktor says:

    Dread sounds really interesting, in an indie kind of way. I’m not into horror games, but as a resolution mechanic, Jenga is perfect for the genre.

  6. Trainzack says:

    The title of this is gamesbow 5-6, but this entry goes up to 7. Which, now that I write that, sounds like the lamest amp ever.

  7. Mersadeon says:

    Apocalypse World is a weird one. It’s “spinoffs”, hacks, derivatives – they mostly seem more conservative than itself. Dungeon World, as an example.

    I’m currently trying to build one based on the latter to fit Warhammer 40k’s Inquisition, since the actual rules to “Dark Heresy”, the official Inquisition-based RPG, are dense, boring and way too long. My players already have two systems each going, with one of them being the very rule-happy Shadowrun, so neither them nor me have the time or interest to learn another behemoth. I’m interest in how they’ll take it, considering “mechanics light” (or whatever you want to call this style of game) games are new land for them.

    With another group, which is somewhat not-average (all female, have been playing Dark Eye for a decade, incredibly story-focused to the point of writing fanfiction about their characters which they’ve been playing for years), I actually played Hobospy and a rules-light version of Paranoia, which was great fun. They’d probably fit right in with games like this.

    • Munkki says:

      Oh my goodness – 40K roleplay. My old gaming group used to play those.

      From what I remember about those games, the really important rules went something like this:

      1. Every roll has a chance for critical success and critical failure
      2. Critical failures can injure or kill you, so only roll when it’s appropriate for a character’s actions to put them at risk of this.
      3. If an action is at all important story-wise, dramatically, or if it might conceivably fail, roll for the outcome. Eg. reloading a weapon in combat. This applies to both PCs and NPCs.

      4. If for any reason your character dies, we have included handy character generation tables to roll against, to allow you to get back in the action quickly and easily.

      The games also featured systems for corruption by the forces of chaos and IIRC cybernetic implant-driven insanity? As far as I could tell, the rest of the rules are mostly there to give the game a facade of respectability and make it that much more entertaining when your grizzled-veteran-of-three-wars haunted-by-his-troubled-past smells a fire, runs for the fire suppression system amid flashbacks to a terrible loss, and then flubs the roll, decapitating himself with the handle and dying instantly. After which the rest of your party moves on, escaping the fire easily without actually needing to activate the suppression system.

      That was fun, though – kind of cathartic seeing your various attempts at building a narrative randomly go up in smoke (often pretty literally). Plus the fact that these rules also applied to NPCs was a big help. Otherwise the game would’ve felt very unfair, very quickly.

      • Mersadeon says:

        Oh, to be fully honest, the crit-tables are the *best thing* about the entire system, and I plan on including them in a way that makes it so that players have a 1 in 10 chance of triggering them on enemies. When player-characters reach zero HP, enemy attacks can cause them, too – and I plan on making it so that players can only die by crits. Because let’s be honest, nobody likes his guy dying because they had 1 HP left and got hit by a stone in the head. Also, the crit tables are ridiculously detailed: you get a different one depending on location hit and type of weapon, and then ten possible results.

        Here, have a look at them!

        Really, the best parts of the official WH40k games were those weird, gruesome systems – the rest was pretty boring, mechanically.

  8. Nathan says:

    Out of curiousity, do you have a link to that Apocalypse World hack you made anywhere, or is it not online?

  9. Talifabian says:

    Do you ever plan on releasing that cyberpunk Powered by Apoc game? I’ve always wanted to get my group into that genre, but it seems a lot of the offerings are pretty crunch heavy, and a few of my players can be turned off by that kind of thing.

  10. Primogenitor says:

    “Each Hod”…

    Now I’m imaging Hodor as an Ork.

  11. Thomas says:

    When it comes to Apocalypse World I cannot recommend Monsterhearts highly enough. You’re an amnesty teenage werewolf/ghost/vampire/mortal(bella ducking swan) amongst other things. Your basic moves are-

    -Turn someone on
    -Shut someone down
    -Lash out physically
    -Stare into the darkness

    The thing that really nails down what it is about are the extremely high level endgame moves:

    -Share your pain
    -Mediate a conflict
    -Make someone feel wonderful.
    -Forgive someone

    You CANNOT do those things until you unlock them. Using the same experience that lets you learn fireball and raise dead.

    It creates better teen supernatural dramas in an afternoon than anything being published today. The move system compels you to behave in iffy, immature ways even whilst your intentions are good.

  12. King Marth says:

    One more game for the gamebow: The Drowning and Falling RPG, where mighty adventurers go out to search for sweet loot while braving the many traps, rooms, and monsters that attempt to hold them underwater until they drown and/or fall from such a height that they die. While it might make sense for such adventurers to be threatened by hazards such as fire, the game really isn’t about those kinds of conflicts, fire is only important if it pushes adventurers to risk drowning and/or falling. Free game available online.

    It also lampshades a quick litmus test for whether any given game is about simulation or story: Are there explicit rules for drowning and falling damage? If yes, then you’ve got a D&D-style game, where you’re simulating a world and there are impersonal laws that will demand that you not do things like jump off a building. If no, then you’ve got a story game, where the nature of obstacles isn’t as important as the characters and what the obstacle means during play, and you can jump off a building if it’s cool enough.

  13. Akuma says:

    I’ve heard you tell that Apocalypse story before, but god damn it still makes me cry with how funny it is.

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