Monday, September 24, 2012

Keys, Milestones, and Coaxing Playstyle with XP Discussion
This is Cage The Elephant's song Ain't No Rest For The Wicked. It was the Borderlands 1 intro song, in which it was fucking PERFECT. It's also a good song on it's own. Wait, I should talk about Borderlands 2? Soon. I'm saving a BL2 song for October Songaday and I'm not reviewing it til I'm done. Speaking of Songaday, this was actually a part of September Songaday. Which I should really post a list of, since I still use it as a restriction upon my future song choices. Anyway enjoy the song and the post.
In an interesting post-DW discussion at the Tacoma Game Day held by the Gamerati, we were talking about XP and how Drew thinks that using a game mechanic to coax a certain play style, a la Keys (The Shadow Of Yesterday I think, also Lady Blackbird) or Milestones (Marvel Heroic) and that he thinks they were an interesting idea that didn't work out. This is an extrapolation of what I think about the topic, not a summary of the discussion or a conclusion we came to or anything of the sort. This is just my musings. For reference, since this is going up BEFORE the Dungeon World AP, the players were Drew, Jay, Me, Scott, Paul, and Erin Sara. I refer to Drew's original point as my main point of discussion.
EDIT: I realized I should probably actually give a sample Key and Milestone since they're so central to, I guess it's kinda become an essay in and of itself. Here's one of Snargle's Keys in Lady Blackbird (note: "hit your key" is mark XP, don't worry about the buyoff thing): "Key of the Daredevil: You thrive in dangerous situations. Hit your key when you do something cool that is risky or reckless (especially piloting stunts). Buyoff: Be very very careful." An example Milestone, from Daredevil: "Out in the Open: 1XP, when you first tell a hero that you're not Daredevil. 3XP, when you go into action as Daredevil without your mask. 10 XP, when you either join a team in spite of your identity crisis or refuse to join a team because of it." I don't mention is again later in the Milestone discussion (mostly because I forgot) by the presence of an "or" in many of the milestones is definitely a mitigating factor, giving you latitude to not not only play the one way they say the character would go, creating a greater chance that the cool action of the moment is the same as the milestone's cool action. Anyway, moving on back to the discussion!
In general, the point I got was that they tend to lead to scenarios where the player is forced to choose between something cool or something to get XP out of. For example, DW's failure-xp system was clever and takes the sting out of failing a bit and lets you focus on the cool that comes out because of the failure rather than just being disappointed. However, Drew felt that, since for a decent little stretch of time he was one off of leveling, he kept trying to roll Discern Realities because his Wisdom was really bad and he was trying to fail to get that last XP, despite it not adding all that much to the story and there being other cool things to do. It's certainly a valid counterargument to Keys and their sibling rules, though I myself have found Keys to be actually uite effective. I think something they do rather well is, while they may have had other cool things in mind as well, Keys DO provide a pretty good avenue to funnel play into a tone that fits the dirction of the game. A lot of games, especially on the indie scale (though I don't think being indie CAUSES this, persay), were designed with a much mroe specific tone in mind, and the game suffers when the tone is broken. Take Dogs in the Vineyard. This is a really specific premise, but how you play the character can vary. As Kevin brought up in a recent bonus episode of The Walking Eye podcast, he doesn't play Dogs any more with first-timers because so many people use the game as an excuse to be a hyper-religious asshole, and I don't think that's what the game is meant to do and that doing so really drags everyone down and out of the rich flavor of he game. Keys and their ilk (is there a word for them?) do a decent enough job at trying to guide you from jumping off the tone.
Keys (just assume I also mean the others) also serve a different purpose, as far as I can see. They help to establish a direction for a character and essentially provide the default tone for a character. This is especially pronounced in a situation with pre-gens, which, funnily enough, both Keys and Milestones happen to be (at least in LB and MHRPG - I know literally nothing about TSOY). With Lady Blackbird, for example, you're provided with characters brand-new and generated of John Harper's mind. No one is going to know how to play them without any direction. The character concepts are broad. It's through the Keys that we understand the tone that was intended for the game - the romance of Vance and Blackbird, the camaraderie between Kale and Vance, etc. The most prominent for me is Snargle's Key of Banter. That is a wildly odd, offbeat Key that gives a very clear direction to the player - this is the character who is a funny, witty, wisecracker. Everyone I've seen play Snargle has immediately tried to make that Key work. Traits and Tags are what you are; Secrets are what you can do special; Keys are how you act by default.
Marvel wields the Milestone a little differently, placing it as a goal rather than a process. Well, sort of. The 1-er Milestones that you can keep triggering are Key-like, telling Daredevil to deny his secret identity to the public and Spiderman to make lame wisecracks (well, it doesn't require lame, but come on). You would likely already play them this way if you're already familiar with the character form the comics - this is a symptom of playing with existing characters from another media - but for the unfamiliar the 1-er Milestone is a great starting point for what the character does a lot as an instinct. The other ones are different though. It says to play as you want, but achieve this particular end-goal, because that's definitely what that character is about and what they strive for. They're more of a tool for letting you know what this character is about (since, while you're playing existing characters, not everyone who plays is familiar with the characters). I genuinely think that, when a person plays a pre-exisiting character from media (regardless, or perhaps especially, when you are not familiar with them), they feel compelled to play the character as they are in their own media instead of taking them and just playing them how THEY think is cool. They picked that character because they already like how that character is, and so will be trying to play them true to the The Milestones are a way of indicating to them how to do so and what they character strives for, and rewarding them for doing so.
I think that's where th problem lies with Milestones. It's not just a roleplaying cue for if you want to play them true - it's incentivizing playing them that way. If you DO just want to take control of the character your own way (play it better than the original, etc), you can, but you sure aren't getting the benefit from doing so. You have a couple options: switch out to the Event Milestones, but I think those are mechanisms to make the event follow the same steps as the original comic, which is a very weird thing for me to grasp, or you could write your own milestones, but those lose the roleplaying cue entirely - you were going to play them like that anyway.
So I think that, from looking at these, I've come to a sort of personal conclusion of what I think of them. Drew is right - they don't act as a means to coax players to play a certain way really - but I don't agree that he's write that they're going to fall out of use. I think they're an excellent tool to judge the intended tone of a game and to direct the playing of existing or low-investment pre-gens like those used in one-shots. They are NOT overly successful in guiding a player to a certain playing style, and serve little to no function at all when the character is player-made (since the player will simply design the "keys" to benefit the way they were already going to play the character).
Oh, I'm realizing I left out what is probably the most relevant of all of the examples, so, if you don't mind reading, I'm just going to keep talking. . We had this discussions as a response to Dungeon World. Wait, Dungeon World doesn't have Keys or Milestones! Well, sort of. It DOES have Alignment, but by contrast we actually liked alignment (since, per session, it only happens once and only happens at the end, you tend to not hound after it and just generally try to act like that at some point in the session, plus it wasn't extremely tight in what we wanted to do with it - plus you get a choice of things). The bit we were talking about was more about what WASN'T in DW rather than what was included: highlighted stats. Highlighted stats are different in a couple ways.
1) They don't specify a way to act or a goal to achieve, but simply a direction to try and perform (by picking a stat rather than a specific behavior)
2) They shift from session to session.
3) They are selected by a combination of other players and the GM.
Each of them has their own effect. The first, despite its difference, I think ends up in the exact same hole as Keys. Instead of trying to move you to play the character in a way that is more dramatic or more accurate to a character, you're playing in a way that'd be interesting to play. Unfortunately, because of point 3, it's NOT what's interesting to you, but to the others. Session-to-session change of the highlighted stats is nice because it allows for variety, but makes it more or less useless as a guide or roleplaying cue for a direction to take the character long-term since next time you very well might not be focusing on that thing. You don't define your character by his Sharp and Hard just because they're highlighted because next time you could be told to focus on how you're Cool and Weird. The last is a weird thing. I very much like the idea of the character who knows your character the best choosing some aspect of something for you. I DON'T like how they choose your primary XP mechanic.
What bugs me about highlighted stats is that they almost directly seem to go against the core principle of AW: play your character like he's real and the world is real. Isn't aiming toward performing actions related to your highlighted stats not allowing your character to do what he naturally would? You have an ulterior motive, to get XP. And the core principle trumps all. This alone, if followed completely, validates the use of highlighted stats - if you don't chase them, it's not a concern that they make you want to do XP things rather than cool things. Unfortunately, people don't follow that rule completely, and I think THAT is where the fault is really, not in any specific mechanism like Keys or Milestones. They have issues, but I think the subconscious drive for XP.
It's weird. For some reason we just drive for advancement. We want more powers I guess, because it's more options and more ways to be cool. It's good and it's bad for this discussion. XP is a powerful motivating force, that can be used as an incentive to act in a certain way to support the tone of the game or the personality of a pre-existing character. It can draw you away from cooler actions. In the majority of games it would actually be beneficial to port over that core principle of AW. When I said it to my own group that their job in Apocalypse World is to play their character as if they were real, the reaction I got was "Wait, aren't we always supposed to do that?", and we are, but we DON'T. We, well, we meta-game. We make decisions because they're good for our character in either the short or long term, not only because that's what they'd do, and sometimes that's benign. However, XP is one of the greatest motivators to meta-game, because we're so desperate to level. I've come to defnitely prefer games where leveling is unimportant or simply absent. For absence, stuff like Fiasco and Microscope of course. The "unimportant levels" idea is a bit trickier. I'd argue that Apocalypse World advancements are unimportant. First, the game mandates that you don't go XP hunting. Second, aside from advanced basic moves and the dull-but-significant stat boosts, nearly everything on the advancement lists are obtainable from character creation. The ability to gain another move? If that move was the coolest thing to you, you could have taken it at the start. A different playbook's move was the coolest thing? Just play that playbook instead. Want a holding, gigs, or a gang? Playbooks for that available at the start. The same can be said of Monsterhearts and Monster of the Week, although not Dungeon World (which level-walls off moves, making XP relevant again). The locked difficulty level of 10+/7-9/6- also makes it so that gaining levels doesn't actually make you that much tougher usually, you don't unlock new places to go or monsters to fight because you're strong enough to fight them now (eg you don't need to wait for level 9 to take on a horde of demons or a dragon or whatever, you can try right away and have, generally, the same potential to succeed) An even more intense thing comes out of Apocalypse World's system: inevitable obsolescence. Level enough, and you're doomed to one of two results: Retire your character to safety, or Change your character to another playbook. The first ends your character's story, time to play someone new. Safe enough, since if you've narrowed it down to those two, you're already playing a second character anyway. The second option allows the character to persist, but requires such a change in identity that often the "Only take it if it makes sense" rule is going to result in you retiring your character. This sort of timer on the character is nice, as is the timing - you're not hugely likely to play enough sessions to naturally reach that ultimatum, or by that point you're probably ready to end that character's arc. However, if you hunt XP and aim very purposefully for that, you'll hit that ending too fast. Plus I like that it's locked in that the character ends, but that's a different day.
So what is an awesome XP system? We were talking at the post-DW table talking about this as well. I believe Scott brought up that, in his experience, the only perfectly appropriate system of when you level is essentially to put up to the GM to just tell people when they've improved enough or experienced enough to level. The one I put forward was Dogs in the Vineyard, which got some agreement. I like that it comes out of a potential to fail - the more fallout you took, the greater your chances of getting experience fallout. You don't grow unless you're risking failure - you don't grow from playing it safe, and I find that rings true - it's one step further than DW's failure-XP, though noticeably more complex. Another cool thing is that almost all of the things you can use your Experience Fallout on are first and foremost narrative tags with little actual mechanical benefit (and that benefit tends to be offset by having to occasionally take penalties off of your Long-Term Fallout). It is very much as different system where, instead of character advancement, you get character development. A third thing I'm happy with is that you simply can't reliably hunt XP. Whether you get XP is a dice roll. I suppose you could intentionally accumulate a lot of fallout to up your chances of rolling 1s and getting experience fallout, but really that slants your result toward taking a long term fallout as well, so your XP hunting didn't actually do anything. Growth comes from actually experiencing these things in the game. Dogs has a lot of problems, primarily lying in its dice complexity, but I think the way it takes its system and integrates experience is simply artful.

So, I've rambled on long enough about all this, and I really should switch back to writing what actually happened at the Game Day. I hope you've enjoyed reading this, it's fun to do some real musing. Weigh in yourself if you have any thoughts, this is an evolving thought process still.

End Recording,

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