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Provoking GM Creativity Via Rules

April 4, 2020

I’m running a game of Apocalypse World and one thing I’m noticing this go around is a way in which the rules do this slick shifting of traditional GM narration framing.

GM as fact creator

When you’re running any game where the GM is expected to create/assign aspects to the world and narrate it, you’re always having to decide “HOW do I decide what is true?”  That may be information you’ve prepared ahead of time (“This character is this strong and has a Strength score of 17”) or it might be something you assign in the moment.

Going from facts to facts

In traditional games, the usual mental framing for the GM when you DO assign something in the moment is what is the most logical thing or really to think of it as if you were looking in on an existing world and what would fit there.  Of course, it’s just you assigning it, but these mental framings are important in terms of how you approach and do things because they shape what you end up doing.

So you’re running a game and there’s a fight and you’ve “assigned” in your head where the enemy is (“Over there, behind the table, taking cover”) and antics happen and the player decides to have their character take a quick look and trying to figure out where the enemy is now.

In this traditional framing, you run through the usual factors “Where would they want to go? How fast could they get there?” or maybe the game assigns a speed stat and you can use that to figure out the positioning and go from there.  (Obviously, all these facts and what ‘makes sense’ is genre context dependent – a superhero game works on different expectations than a gritty street crime game).

Most traditional GMing, the established facts are the PRIME thing to consider, the priority in deciding what new facts and events to create.

Sometimes go to the edge cases

Continuing from the prior example “Where is the enemy?” has a range of possible answers – and you can think of that range as a bell curve – the thing that makes the most sense given established facts is the largest, mostly likely distribution, while the edges are less likely.  If you always pick the middle, things get less interesting, and, as a GM, you’re likely to always go for it because it’s the path of least effort.

Apocalypse World shoves your focus as a GM to the edges, with one simple phrase in many of the moves: “…but expect the worst.”

If we were simply using the facts for new facts and sticking with the most likely answer, then “Where is the enemy?” has the same answer whether you rolled well or rolled poorly and got “…but expect the worst”.

This is only triggered in Apocalypse World when players have a Miss on a roll, this means the answer, the outcome or fact you create as a GM should be substantially different – that fact exists as a Schrodinger’s Cat – an undefined quantum state – until the dice are rolled and you narrate it.

Often times when these rolls come up and I don’t think I have a good answer, I am pushed to improvise a situation that I never would have thought of, had not prepped, and makes the game much more interesting.

Example of Expect the Worst

A couple of sessions ago, a player character was hiding in the husk of a burnt out car while two gangs were fighting in the street.  She made a Read a Situation Roll and asked “Who’s in control here?” and, by the facts, kinda no one was, in the chaos.  But “expect the worst” made me consider “What would be the worst situation? I mean, being caught in this situation is already… bad.”

Oh, wait, of course.

“You just know to look over your shoulder, and you see the ripple in the sky is opened and the psychic maelstrom is looking down on this.  It’s watching, THIS fight, specifically.  The maelstrom is in control here.”

What does that mean? Fuck if I know.  I just know the situation immediately is made worse, if not in a obvious fashion, in a “well, whatever the big picture is, this is extra, especially, not great.”

It encourages you to create twists that you, yourself, as a GM don’t see coming at all, while still retaining a moderately traditional GM role.  As I often say, the simplest rule is “I say a thing and it happens” so every other kind of rule should provide something more interesting than that – having outcomes force the GM to look at the edge cases, “plausible if not immediately obvious” is a pretty great rule to work with.

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