In a plot twist of sorts, the #TorontOSR has been playing more narrative games of late. (You can call us #StorYYZ, of course.) We recently wrapped up a 4 session arc of Cartel, which prompted some interesting discussion in our Discord. In a double plot twist, Paul T, who you may recognize from storygames.com, was the person who ran the game. He has somehow been sucked into the #TorontOSR, and joins us often, like some sort of ethnographer. Paul writes way too much and just throws it into the ether. A waste! So I have taken his words and shared them below (with his permission, of course). The conversational tone below is because it was part of a conversation. I thought this was an interesting view into how to think about playing so-called story games. The emphasis below is my own: this was maybe the idea that jumped out at me the most.
Choosing Left or Right
In any game, there are important decisions to be made, which push things forward to move us towards escalation and resolution. Part of player skill in these endeavours is a) being able to identify which decisions are important, which are arbitrary, and which are both, and then b) making them so the game can move forward.
In an OSR game, very often that’s “do we go left or right here?” Good players know when it’s a meaningful decision and when it’s an arbitrary one (so you can just flip a coin or whatever), and play accordingly. Move the game forward—it doesn’t go anywhere unless you choose a corridor, bub.
In a dramatic game, though, those spatial decisions often/generally don’t have any weight or importance. What really matters is morality, theme, and character drive. That’s where the game doesn’t do anything if the players don’t move. Especially if we’re trying to play on a short time frame (as happens if you play a handful of 2 hour sessions online: it’s basically an extended one-shot). So it’s important to identify those crucial points, and make a strong move on them. Strong means dramatic, important, or resonant.
In an OSR game, failing to choose left or right when there’s no real info to go on will just stall the game. In a dramatic game, similarly failure to decide whether you hate your mother or whether you want to poison or sleep with your rival will stall the game. The GM has tools to push things along, but the game doesn’t really “go” until the players take strong positions on those things.
And often, like left or right (especially in a short-form game), they are arbitrary, so you can go with your gut. However, it’s important to pick one, make it strong, and make your choice quickly.
There are two main ways this happens in dramatic games:
The player thinks about the story as an author, picking something that excites them or the people around them.
We set up a pregnant situation, usually with the player heavily involved and bought in emotionally, and then in play the player can think as the character and react passionately and instinctively. Follow your gut and react powerfully from the mindset of the character.
You know when you’re playing a character and suddenly you just know that they hate this new person who appeared? You don’t even know why, it’s just clear as day to you? That’s the feeling. The second way is generally more exciting (for me, anyway) because it’s visceral, but it requires some setup. You build a situation with that potential energy in it already, get excited about it, and then dive into character and play from the gut. This means driven, passionate characters, and a situation which puts pressure on them.
This is very exciting in play! A form of unconscious authoring which is both powerful and moving. However, when the conditions for it do not exist (as often happens in more short-term play), you have to make a choice: help the game move ahead by making the first move.
A good player in this style often makes bold moves like this. It can be complex or nuanced, or it can be simple, like announcing that you feel a certain way when an NPC is introduced (“Oh, a noble! I hate all nobles, and, by extension, hate this guy with a totally irrational passion”). It’s like playing White in Chess - there’s no battle yet, but you’ve got to advance a pawn and start one.
Next time you see a movie or TV show, note how the writers do this. Why’s Batman so angry? A criminal killed his parents.
In our Cartel game, I was happy when Sofia and Alvaro took a strong stance and made a move by choosing to kill her husband and his boss in order to take over the family. That’s what allowed us to reach a sense of conclusion and forward motion. Nice!
That’s an angle on it, anyway. Questions, comments, criticism are all welcome if anyone wants to discuss! — Paul T, March 24th, 2022
One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question—which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they’re talked about implies different levels of distance.
I suspect that when a lot of people say they don’t purposefully want to inject heavy “relevant” themes into their games it’s not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because—like me—when they play they never escape reality, and so any “theme” always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way—for this kind of player—trivializing it. — Zak Smith—from a 7 year old blog post1
As I mentioned in my post about Cartel, “These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them.” These games also seem at their most challenging when they push into areas you don’t expect games to go. To my surprise, I found Night Witches—a game about sexism, death, hopelessness and sometimes hope during WWII—really compelling. It’s not the sort of game I normally play. More so, when I first picked it up it struck me as an odd subject to turn into a game. Acting out the lives of women in this hopeless situation seemed like it could be disrespectful.
Playing Night Witches made me rethink some of my thoughts around these “serious” games. Night Witches seems engineered to push the stories it tells in a particular direction.2 This can help keep serious matters serious. As I mentioned in my review, it’s quite likely your campaign of Night Witches will feel unrelenting and nihilistic, punctuated by brief moments of joy when you shoot down some Nazis. The gears of the game turn a certain way. The game feels respectful of the story it is helping you tell.
Velvet Glove is an Apocalypse World hack where you and your friends play a group of racialized teenage girls living in 1970s segregated small-city America—phew. (I picked it up because it sounded interesting and had a cool cover. I have fast become a fan of these overly specific Apocalypse World hacks.3) I’d say it has some thematic overlap with Night Witches. When I first saw Velvet Glove I had the same sort of knee-jerk reaction I did to Night Witches: should I be playing this game? I’ve played plenty of women in my D&D games4, but in the sorts of games I end up playing in the fact you are a playing man or a women is often immaterial. Or, at the very least, I usually play the same sort of genderless adventure person. Not that i’m adverse to playing a game where I’m asked to take on the role of a racialized women, but can I do that experience justice.
Night Witches feels like the safer game to play because we are so far removed from the experiences of a WWII Russian fighter pilot. You can invest a lot into the people you play in that game and feel safe knowing you probably won’t be called out for “doing it wrong”. There is a distance between you and the women you’re playing. Velvet Glove hits a lot closer to home. The racism and sexism it’s talking about are very much alive today. It’s likely you know people who deal with the problems Velvet Glove touches upon. As such, playing the characters in Velvet Glove feels like it could be more fraught or difficult. The challenge for game designers making these sorts of games is trying to introduce enough structure to the game that you gently nudge the emergent story in a particular direction. (It’s one way to try and understand and criticize these games.)
Velvet Glove and Cartel feel like they come from a similar headspace. They both seem to be a way to talk about how people make hard choices when put in positions where they have limited options. (And perhaps more obviously they both feature protagonists that aren’t White.) Of course, the games diverge in some obvious ways as well. The crimes and delinquency of your teenage girl gang will pale in comparison to the crimes of the cartels. It’s a totally different world. It’s easier to sympathize and empathize with the characters in Velvet Glove. Mark Diaz Truman likely wants us to feel the same way about the characters of Cartel, but for most people that will be a much bigger leap. Mark could have chosen many different topics to tell his story about Mexicans, but he settled on the drug war. (It’s interesting, complex, and exciting, after all.) He outlines both the struggle and ambition of the game he wants to make in an interview he did recently with Brie Sheldon:
Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce… but as a compelling drama.
When I saw this interview with Mark this passage caught my eye. (It’s what prompted this post.) Games can lean on the distance of time or the distance of metaphor to help make players feel comfortable playing roles that they might otherwise be uncomfortable playing. (For example, Night Witches uses time, and Monster Hearts uses metaphor.) It feels like Mark is touching on something similar to Zak’s comment above. Half the D&D games I play are filled with amoral murder machines straight out of a Jack Vance novel. These games don’t often feel edgy or complicated because you are so far removed from the characters you are playing.
You can’t mention Cartel without someone else jumping in to tell you glamourizing the Mexican cartels is despicable.5 This looks to be the most common complaint about the game. The archetypes the playbooks of the game represent aren’t distant or fantastic: they are grounded in reality.6 Mark could tell his story about the Mexican drug trade using allegory (the cartel are the dark elves or some such nonsense), or he could push his story backwards or forwards in time (Cartel: 2120). As players you might be able to avoid dwelling too much on the reality of what you’re playing. But this seems contrary to everything Mark wants to do with his game. His goal—as he notes often—is to push people to play roles that might be uncomfortable for them. He wants people playing Mexicans.
When talking about his game Mark often talks about the Wire. One of my favourite characters on that show is Bodie, a real fan favourite. The thing is, that dude shot Wallace in the first season! It’s one of the most heart breaking scenes in the show. The Wire isn’t glamourizing anything about the drug trade. I’m not sure Mark can produce the Wire of Powered by the Apocalypse World hacks—that’s a high bar to reach!—but it’s not inconceivable that you can produce something very good about violence and drugs and all that bad stuff. There is value in understanding the systems that produce the situation in Mexico today. To pretend it’s all bad people being bad is stupid and simple. There are all sorts of ways to tell that story. Mark chose to make a game.
“You play members of the cartel” may actually be sufficient to make some folks sick to their stomach, no matter what Mark has done to make it clear these characters aren’t good guys. That’s a legit critique.
So … I don’t think that’s a legit critique.
The fact anyone is making a game about the cartels is going to offend some people on principle. If you don’t want to play that game that seems like a totally reasonable response. I can imagine a lot of games I wouldn’t want to play. You probably can too. While I am sure Mark can convince people their understanding of his game is incorrect, no one obligated to engage with Mark to understand where he’s coming from. It’s perfectly fine to think a game is gross and leave it at that. Games aren’t for everyone and this game is likely no exception. But your distaste for a game isn’t a critique: that’s just a personal preference.
All of the games I’ve mentioned in this post could be offensive to people. Sometimes you might agree with what the person finds offensive. Other times not so much. (Some people are moaning about sex fluid elves right now when talking about 5e, after all.)
An argument can be made that no game can do this particular subject justice. And an argument can be made that this particular game isn’t doing its subject justice. But someone needs to make those arguments. My random thoughts above are one way to talk about games like these. There are probably other, better ways, as well. (I mean, what do I know? I play D&D!)
All of these games exist because people didn’t pick up and go home for fear of offending someone. This is likely true of most compelling art.
If I wrote this article now I probably wouldn’t have started with a quote from Zak. But here we are. I still think it is a good quote. Buyer beware, anyway.↩
I do think as players we are ultimately responsible for whether we are trivializing someones experience or not when playing a game. Jason Morningstar isn’t there to tell us off. He can only do so much. ↩
The scene around Apocalypse World is interesting in that it seems to produce these games that can only be described as “very specific.” Not to take away from Apocalypse World—which is god damn fun—but its premise is reasonably pedestrian: it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked! (And fucking each other.) But from that game you end up with “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a Russian fighter pilot from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a confused queer teenage monster” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a teenage girls battling white male hegemony”. That seems like such a leap! The brain trust on Google+ had a lot of good thoughts about why this might be the case.↩
My random character generator generates women 50% of the time. It also spits out disabled characters 25% of the time. Don’t say I’m not doing anything for representation in the OSR. ↩
Which is true: you shouldn’t glamourize gang violence. ↩
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything someone showed up to ask (with much sarcasm) whether the game would include moves for disposing of bodies in acid, something the cartels do. Mark replied the game already does. Ha! ↩
You’ve got your hands on the ashcan of the full game, a preview of Cartel that’s got everything you need to sample the game before it’s released next year. — Mark Diaz Truman, Cartel “Ashcan Edition”, 2015.
Cartel is like D&D, but everyone is a drug trafficking Mexican gangster. The game is an engine to produce the sorts of stories you see in Breaking Bad and Narcos. Like other Apocalypse World games the mechanics look to push you towards eventual calamity. I suspect like Breaking Bad you would play a game where your hijinks are funny till they’re not.
The game doesn’t drift too far from the general the core of Apocalypse World’s rules, so for most players familiar with the rule set it should be easy to jump into. The genre the game emulates is a lot more accessible than some of the other (particularly niche) Powered by the Apocalypse games I’ve picked up. I think it’ll be an easy game to get into. You’ll recognize the archetypes the playbooks describe: the dirty cop, the naive spouse, the “cook”, etc. The most notable changes to the rules (that I picked up on, and really, what do I know?) is around how you gain experience and advance your character. I am a fan of the change: each playbook has thematic options for how you advance that encourage you to play your role. (And, when you get bored of your experience objective you can move in the opposite direction to cancel it out and pick a new one.)
When I first picked up the game my friend Gus brought up something that’s always on my mind with these Powered by the Apocalypse games: are they making light of a serious topics?
I’m not sure how I feel about a game that romanticizes the Mexican Drug War. Though I want to be a cleric of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte when we play. … I find Latin American and American pulp narco-fiction to be pretty damn creepy and exploitative (El Marginal and Sicaro both, and also yeah Netflix’s Narcos) already, and I wonder how beer and pretzels tabletop can do better. This is sort of why I like my fantasy games and moral play to be a bit more removed - give me Carcossan cannibals, not Los Zetas. — Gus, 2016.
Moments after Gus asked the question fellow Torontonian and BreakoutCon organize Rob chimed in with a link to an old Gaunlet podcast episode where Mark discusses this very topic with Jason Cordova. Jason is a lawyer and had previously worked with people affected by Mexican drug trade. His initial feelings about this game were pretty strong (and negative). (This interview takes place a year after he first encountered the game, so his views had cooled a fair bit.) Their conversation on this podcast is really fantastic. It’s probably one of the best episodes. (So rare!) I’ve been looking forward to the game since listening to this interview.
These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them. You can see in the playbooks and the writing and everything that orbits the game thus far that Mark’s really put a lot (of himself!) into this game: exactly what I want from my games that are “like D&D, but …”.2
I have so many half written blog posts I should finish. What’s the point of a blog if you don’t write anything, right? At least this post is more topical, now. ↩