Friday, November 22, 2013

Avatar World: MC Plots

I still know nothing about this game. Google tells me it's a life simulator, which means nothing to me. I've caught on that it's anime as hell, but the soundtrack continues to be absolutely stellar. Like, unbelievably so. I guess one shouldn't underestimate a triple-A title that's actually focused on its music as a central point.

IMPORTANT: As this post is about story structure, I talk about and make reference to specific events from Korra: Season 1. I don't touch of Season 2, but if you wish to remain unspoiled on Season 1, you should watch it before reading this.

So, if you were looking even not-so-closely at the newest version of Avatar World, you'll see that the Chi mechanic is technically still incomplete. Not insomuch as the mechanic can't be used, but it lacks a major component of balance for multi-session games: MC Plots. The idea that spending your Chi contributes to the forward motion of the bad guys' schemes is a mechanism to counteract the power of Chi.

Oh yeah, I should mention: in the one playtest I was recently in using the new rules, the general feedback was that an automatic 7-9 wasn't quite enticing enough to them compared to chi's use as XP. My instinct says "I'm not sure how true that is of all groups" (we were all regulars with a large love of what happens on failure anyway, so the risk of rolling tended to be worth it), but I suspect that's just attachment to my mechanic. Of course, it was one game; nothing is quite changing until I see a little more feedback, but over the past couple weeks I'm starting to lean toward empowering Chi again, straight up to "bump your roll up from 6- to 7-9 or 7-9 to 10+", which is strong but I think that matched with Chi's dual use as XP and the trouble it causes with MC Plots will still scare down any constant use. It become a wickedly powerful tool in one-shots, where MC Plots are less relevant and XP isn't all that desirable anyway compared to success, but I'm still thinking it might be the smart move.

I'm getting ahead of myself though, those are changes for a future version. Today is about filling in a gap, or more accurately talking about filling in a gap. Let's start from the top.

What are MC Plots?
MC Plots are Avatar World's version of Fronts from Apocalypse World. Why change the name? Well, Plots sounds like TV show and movie stuff, which obviously runs deep in Avatar World's blood. Also I think it's more imminently obvious what we're talking about just from the name.
But what if I don't know Apocalypse World and fronts? Well, this is gonna be a standalone text, so let's try to describe them.
Plots are the device through which MCs organize the various troubles that are stacking up against the PCs. They have several components. Aside from the Name (self-explanatory), Plots have three major pieces: Tracks, Threats, and Moves.
Threats are the various forces and elements that comprise a Plot. They come in a bunch of types, basically split up by category of what they are. People are usually the driving force of such things, but whole movements ("the Equalists") or groups of people ("the Rough Rhinos") can be single threats. Threats needn't even be direct characters: "Foggy Swamp" was totally a threat in and of itself, and landscapes are a whole category of threat.
Moves are just what they sound like: special moves that change the way the PCs interact witht he front. These aren't actually given to the MC; they are exclusively custom moves, meaning they write them themselves for the game. They don't need to be a big deal, and I encourage all MCs to give a shot at writing some even if they're not confident in any design ability - you're not going to knock down the game with them, and it makes the game much richer. I can't provide them because they're explicitly linked to the specific Plots of your game. I could give you "When you wander alone in Foggy Swamp, roll+Natural. On a 10+ the swamp shows you visions of what you're looking for. On a 7-9, it shows you visions of something you don't want to remember and the Foggy Swamp Tribe knows your location." However, that presumes that Foggy Swamp is a place and threat in your game, and that the Foggy Swamp Tribe is an adversary of your game. Simply put, I can't write moves for literally every situation you could come up with, even if I restricted myself to the Avatar universe, which would be silly in the first place. This is where you get to make the rules of the game truly personal to your own game.
Tracks are today's main subject.

Okay, so Apocalypse World's Fronts had this thing called Countdown Clocks. Those clocks were a major theme of ApW, and were used whenever things happened in stages. All fronts had countdown clocks describing the path the Front would take as it moved toward achieving its goals. Countdown clocks all had the same shape, basically a circle split into six segments. Now, these clocks were intentionally reminiscent of the Doomsday Clock here in the real world, which isn't really important to what we're doing here, plus I think the clock might be a bit limiting.
So what are Tracks? Well, they serve the same function: to outline the schemes of the Plot over time. Each block of a track is a step in the schemes of the Plot. Each block of a track also has a Chi cost associated with it, indicating how much it would cost to advance to that next level of the Plot.
This is the 1-block. This would mean it costs 1 Chi for the MC to cause the event associated with this step to occur.
This is the 2-block. It means the same as the 1-block, but costs an additional Chi.
In theory you could have a 3-block, but I don't think that's actually necessary.

This is a basic Track. It's a four step Plot, and each step costs 1 Chi to advance to. Say, for the Equalists, "Rallies are held across the city, and The Revelation is set," "The pro-bending tournament is attacked," "Cabbage Corp is publicly blamed as the Equalist's manufacturer," and "War is declared on Republic City." Notice that none of the steps are conclusive - they're all meant as impetus for player action.
It's also important to mention that just because an MC has Chi doesn't mean they have to spend it immediately - if it makes little sense for the Equalists to declare war right then, the MC just holds it til it feels right. The important part is that once they have the Chi, the pacing of the Plot is in their hands rather than the players'.
To be entirely honest, I could leave it right here. As the scale of what happens isn't set, you can have a four-track be bunch of small stuff inside of a less-important plot or have it be much more affecting. However, I think that what I have is a great setup to try and build something more interesting. Chi-based Tracks are pretty cool for guiding the pacing of the story. Since the MC gaining Chi essentially parallels player desperation, it puts some limits on the movement of the story, forcing meaningful or tough events to challenge players in order for the plot to advance, which feels right to me.
Let's look at some alternate tracks.

This is a front-loaded Track, requiring a bunch of stuff to happen before the Plot even kicks into gear. If this was your first Plot of the game, it means that character drama has to come first before all the big bad MC stuff comes in, which feels fitting to the shows. Aang and Katara and Sokka were all way tearing into each other before the Fire Nation ship showed up.
If this is a sub-sequent Plot, the 2 acts as a barrier to starting a lot of Plots, keeping the game focused.

This is a back-loaded Track. It basically says that it takes an extra bit of trial to trigger the final climax of the Plot, which describes the pattern of a lot of stories in general.
This is probably well-suited to being the track of the Main Plot Arc.

A bookended Track, this is a combination of both of the above tracks, needing a push to start and to go into climax.

A middle-loaded Track, the beginning and end come easily as they're the most dramatic parts usually, with the trials being long and tough.
I go back and forth on whether I like this one.

What if we play with length? This one's 5 steps long. Heck, Apocalypse World ones are 6 long, but I had a hard enough time breaking down the Equalists into just 4 - I don't think I could come up with a good 5th step. Long ones like this are the sort of arc that goes multiple seasons: the entirety of the first show's main arc, Sozin's Comet, was probably 6 steps. Azula's arc was probably 5 long, as was Zuko The Adversary's arc.

A 3 step Tack is probably just right for a lot of Plots, especially if you throw a 2-block in there. Depending on how the group plays, this would probably be pretty good for a double-episode arc - you know, the ones that are two-parters. Siege of the North was probably a 3 step track with a 2-block in the end, "The Fire Nation attacks," "Zuko kidnaps the Avatar" "Zhou kills the Moon."

A 2 step Track might be good for a single episode Plot, but at this size I think it's probably just better to handle with your regular materials instead of prepping a Plot. I just wanted to have it here to talk about, I don't think you should use 2 step Tracks.

All of these leave me with a couple of unanswered questions.
Should I present more of a toolbox approach, with multiple potential Tracks and how to build a Track for your Plot? Or should I find a stable solution (or a couple of them) and present those ones that I find best-suited for the game?
One is more about control and delivering a particular experience, the other allows for greater variation. I'm leaning toward "Toolbox" right now, if for no other reason than it being a lot easier on me, I don't have to try to find the optimal one or two.

Is there another way for the MC to gain Chi?
If presented with a group that doesn't spend their Chi much and likes to level up more, how do Plots advance? The way Fronts move forward in Apocalypse World is either according to fiction ("Have they been left alone long enough to get this done by now?") or through hard moves. The first is a bit of a no-brainer - I think the fiction probably supercedes the mechanic there. But hard move to advance, I dunno. Instead, I kinda think a good hard move might be for the MC to gain Chi - this means that if they really want to advance their Plots, they can, but it means being a bit softer on the players for the moment. And, functionally, it'll be the same most of the time, since Tracks are usually mostly composed of 1-blocks.
But by giving MCs this additional pathway, am I cutting off what I'm doing with the pacing at the knees? I dunno. That's why this is unanswered!

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