System Hack: A Not-Advancement System for PbtA

Every creative endeavor has a ‘how’ and a ‘why’. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, your project will have something you’re trying to do or say, and then a method by which you do or say it. A couple weeks ago, I meditated on the prevalence and necessity of advancement in RPGs, coming to the conclusion that advancement as a story concept in games is a truism, a trope, and not necessarily a requirement. That article provided me with a ‘why’; today we’re going to talk about one potential ‘how’.

As I stated before, advancement systems have two core functions: incentivizing behavior and mechanizing change. Neither of these things are required in an RPG, but mechanizing change is worth having and worth doing in multiple interesting ways. The ‘change’ produced by advancement is an arc of growth and development, but one which narrowly focuses on the innate abilities of the character to the minimization or exclusion of other elements.

Advancement as character change is like D&D itself; the two are widespread in significant excess of the sets they represent (character change mechanics and RPGs, respectively). Given that the number of potential mechanics for character change are so broad, instead of trying to further enumerate them, I’m going to design an example, and I’m going to use the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) framework to do it.

PbtA is a great starting point for this experiment because the system is simple, modular, and easily distilled. In addition to that, there are already a few not-advancement systems which exist in published games. For a simple example, consider Urban Shadows. The corruption mechanic acts as a shadow advancement system, allowing characters to gain greater and greater powers as they lose their humanity. While the corruption mechanic is not dissimilar to advancement systems (including the other, core advancement system in Urban Shadows) in how it’s built, it helps tell a different sort of story about the character, and that’s ultimately what we want.

Most PbtA mechanics are constructed of triggers and effects, and done so more transparently than a lot of other systems. Advancement systems are no exception to this; as I reviewed in my PbtA 201 article, advancement systems in popular systems almost all boil down to if [player behavior], then [gain experience]. We’re not going to stray too far from this framework because it’s simple and it works…but what we’re going to want to do is broaden the palette when it comes to how characters change over their arcs.

One advantage of PbtA advancement systems in their current form is that they’re eminently portable. Almost every PbtA game I’ve played has a list of ‘advancements’ that looks similar: increase an attribute, gain a move from your playbook, gain a move from another playbook. If we’re designing a ‘plot advancement’ system as opposed to a ‘character advancement’ system, some of that genericization is going to have to go away. To accomplish this, I’m going to frame this system in a not-yet-existing game, one that uses a high concept trope that many of my readers will be familiar with: the ensemble comedy. My idea focuses around a specific subtype of ensemble comedy, usually a movie, which I have not been able to find a more specific name for. A group of old friends is brought together by an external event, and through a sequence of trials and/or challenges they learn more about themselves and their relationships with each other. Sound vague? It is, but this is the underlying plot to movies like Bridesmaids, The Hangover, and The World’s End, among many others. It serves our purposes well because the genre is so mired in tropes that a first pass at developing a plotting system can fit in an article easily. It’s also part of a larger design challenge: make a comedy RPG that doesn’t go stale in campaign play.

To design this system we’re going to use the basic mechanical scaffold that’s already in place for advancement in PbtA, but repurpose it a bit. There will be in-game events and behaviors that will serve as triggers, enabling players to check boxes, earn points, whatever term we settle on that doesn’t use the phrase “experience points”. After checking enough of these boxes, the player can select an effect. The core difference is that these effects will not represent ‘advancement’; they will not be, for the most part, stat bonuses or new moves or anything of that nature. Instead, they will be character and story changes which affect how the game continues. We’ll talk about the triggers, the events in play that make these changes happen. We’ll also talk about the effects, what the changes are and what will make them interesting. But first, we’re going to discuss the PbtA rules scaffold, and what design changes need to be made from a typical PbtA game to support this idea.

Scaffold

The PbtA rules scaffold is relatively simple: there are moves, there are attributes, there is gear. Moves define what characters can do, while attributes and gear either enhance or grant permission for moves. Fortunately, this means that attributes and gear, if we want to define them at all, do not require any changes for the sake of our not-advancement system. Moves, though, require some consideration.

A typical PbtA game has three sets of moves: basic moves, playbook moves, and GM moves. While these are cut and diced different ways in different games, these three sets are important because of who has permission to make moves. Basic moves can be made by any character, playbook moves can only be made by the character who has the appropriate playbook (or earned that move through an advancement), and GM moves are made by the GM. The other key difference is that Basic and Playbook moves usually require a roll, and GM moves never do. 

Basic moves as a concept we can leave alone. There’s a set of moves everyone can use, which establish the actions that are important in the fiction. Playbook moves can remain as the core differentiator between characters, but the lists of playbook moves will need to be written differently. In a typical PbtA game, each character has somewhere in the neighborhood of half a dozen playbook moves, and starts play with one or two. Since we’re not driving the game with advancement, there is no need for a menu of options beyond what a character starts with, so the list should be shorter. There are two ways to approach this: Either a playbook starts with every move listed, or the playbook provides a few simple choices, making it clear that the moves are either/or. Both are valid options but both lead to the same conclusion that there need to be fewer playbook moves in a game with a not-advancement system.

The other key element to consider are GM moves. GM moves as they exist can stay, but we can use the framework for something new. The idea of a GM move is that moves happen, without a roll, and are generally “bigger” in effect than character-driven moves. We’re not inventing the idea of giving this framework to players; Belonging Outside Belonging games borrow the structure of GM moves, including the language of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ moves, and mediate these moves and their impacts through the use of a token-based economy rather than dice rolls. We will definitely be borrowing this idea when it comes to looking at plot effects, though use it more as a complement to a dice-driven PbtA framework as opposed to writing a Belonging Outside Belonging game.

So we need fewer playbook moves, and we’re thinking that the GM moves framework is going to help us write our new game effects. Overall, the basic gameplay loop and mechanics are intact; even without advancement people are still going to recognize this as a PbtA game. With that in mind, let’s talk a bit more about what we’re trying to build with our not-advancement system, and start with some gameplay triggers.

Triggers

Whether used for an advancement system or our not-advancement system, effect triggers work best when there’s only a few of them. Apocalypse World has two general XP triggers: use a highlighted stat, and advance Hx with another character to 4. For our hypothetical not-advancement system I will also use two triggers; one an old standby and one inspired (extremely vaguely) by the faction mechanics in Urban Shadows. The old standby is based on the classic “XP for Failure”. Ensemble Comedies are one of the many genres that can be effectively described or written with a relatively simple “three disasters and an ending” structure, and inflicting the disasters on the characters is often the primary source of comedy in the story. Because of this, the ‘misses’, the things going wrong, are definitely going to be driving the story forward.

The second effect trigger is new, but it’s based in my thinking around the tropes inherent in ensemble comedies. At an extremely high level, there are three elements (beyond a core conflict or problem statement) which drive these sorts of comedies forward: I’m calling them Scars, Burdens, and Grudges. A scar is a permanent (at least in the timeframe of the story) character change that will cause negative consequences for the character unless mitigated. Consider the movie Sideways, where characters Miles and Jack take a trip into California wine country before Jack’s wedding. During this trip Jack cheats on his fiancee and the woman he was cheating with hits him in the face and breaks his nose. The broken nose, unable to be fixed before the wedding in three days, is the Scar. To mitigate the Scar, Miles rams his own car into a tree in order to make it look like the broken nose was caused by a fender bender and not a scorned lover.

A burden is some item that the characters pick up which must be dealt with. The classic example of this is the baby from The Hangover. The characters do not know where the baby came from but they know they need to get it back to its parents somehow. A Burden will cause the characters grief and force them to protect, hide, or otherwise manage it until it can be resolved.

A Grudge is relationship between two or more characters that is, as you may have guessed, confrontational. What’s important to make this comic is that a Grudge should be based around a positive relationship, not an enmity. The Grudge is the underlying tension in the relationship, not the nature of the relationship itself. A good example of this is the core relationships from Bridesmaids. While Annie and Helen’s confrontational relationship is the obvious Grudge, it only works because of the hinge that both of them are friends with Lillian. In this way, it serves both to show that a Grudge must be rooted in a positive relationship, but also that a Grudge can involve more than just two people.

As I noted, using these items as triggers is very, very vaguely inspired by the Faction mechanics in Urban Shadows. There are four factions in Urban Shadows, and the main way to gain advances in that game is to use the Faction Moves on each of the four factions. In this game, I’m imagining that there will be a set of Scar Moves, Burden Moves, and Grudge Moves, made applicable by each’s inclusion in a given game. Once moves from one of these sets are used enough times, there’s an effect triggered.

As you might be able to guess, there’s a whole slew of additional writing around building out how stories are told with these specific mechanics. That’s to be expected, we are trying to provide a mechanic for a narrative arc, after all. The next biggest element, after what the items are that trigger plot changes, is what those plot changes are.

Effects

So in defining four sets of triggers, we need to define four sets of effects. While the effects triggered by move failure, Scars, Burdens, and Grudges should be unique, they need not be non-overlapping. It’s also worth considering how these effects wax and wane in importance as the story goes on.

Move failure effects will be rooted in complicating and introducing the other elements. Especially at the beginning of most comedy plots, things get crazier and crazier. If we’re looking at the “three disasters and an ending” framework, you have an introductory ‘disaster’, a complicating ‘disaster’, and a final ‘disaster’ that triggers the beginning of the resolution. The inciting force of the first ‘disaster’ may or may not be triggered in-game; it’s entirely possible that the session zero mechanic includes laying this groundwork. If not, though, the triggers would be based on move failures if only because the Scar, Burden, and/or Grudge elements may not be defined at the very beginning. The complicating ‘disaster’ should be driven by move failure as well, if only because at this point in the story things are still getting worse instead of better. Knowing that, the effects will likely be rooted in plot control, allowing a player to introduce the key elements or other interventions and complications. After that, though, move failure should wane in importance. One way to do this is to simply limit the number of move failure effects, and another is to build in a threshold similar to what’s already used in PbtA games: after five (or however many) effects have been triggered, you unlock later-game effects, with more permanent or dramatic results. These could even include some of the late-game effects we’re already familiar with: retire a character, change a playbook, introduce a second character.

The element effects should be limited and specific; I’m imagining that each element has three or four effects that are triggered, maybe in a specific order, maybe not. One interesting thing this does is establish a potentially competitive dynamic: the effects present plot changes which affect the entire group, so being the one to trigger them grants a degree of narrative control. Whether or not this dynamic plays out, the end result is still that the players who interact with the plot elements the most are the ones who will have the most say in how they develop.

One common thread in all effects is that the potentially open-ended loop of advancement needs to be closed to effectively tell a different story. Another feature of “character growth as plot arc” is that there isn’t a defined top, at least not on a meta level. When trying to represent a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, these must be reflected in the mechanics in a way that advancement mechanics often sidestep or avoid.


Instead of modeling character abilities, this not-advancement system models the introduction, complication, and resolution of plot objects, based on the tropes of ensemble comedy movies. One can already begin to see what would be needed to build this into a game: write playbooks based on the character tropes present in the genre, write moves that represent the actions that characters take, and then build out the envisioned arcs of the Scar, Burden, and Grudge. My idealized vision for a game like this is one that helps the players develop characters and their relationships over maybe half a dozen sessions, put them through some outlandish or wacky scenarios, and laugh a lot doing it. The game is no longer driven by character advancement or heroic acts, rather by seeing how friendships respond to adversity, hopefully in a lighthearted way. In addition to not having traditional advancement, this game would likely not need combat of any sort, and can also likely get away without having any attributes either. That said, I could imagine a market for this kind of game…and given a healthy number of random tables to help the group come up with their own comedy scenarios, it could be a really solid product. This brainstorm represents only one of many, many ways that games can tell different archetypal stories, and a good number of these also already exist, floating around the indie space. Hopefully developing one small example can help inspire people to come up with even more games and game ideas which dispense with some of the truisms that dominate the RPG space.

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