A New(?) Mechanic For Player Narrative Power

So I have a fantasy PbtA hack that, for the most part, follows the usual move structure. However, one of the moves I created for the Thief playbook is the following:

CRIMINAL BACKGROUND
Check off each one the first time you need access to it. You automatically have it.

  • A safehouse where they won’t find you
  • Free passage on a pirate vessel
  • A secret way in past the guards
  • The secret password
  • Knowledge of a secret passage
  • A favor owed by a local gang
  • An old flame who has what you need
  • You paid one of them off beforehand

(There are boxes next to each to check off)

It’s inspired by the way Blades in the Dark handles flashbacks and load and such, but I think it simplifies and compresses that idea down in a unique way.

I’m considering basing a game around this idea – that characters’ “powers” are entirely meta-fictional - things you check off as you play that allow you to introduce twists and aspects into the shared imaginary space. This might not be the entirety of the game - I’m considering having various other mechanical aspects of the character, traditional or otherwise, to interact with a dice-based task resolution system. This would be a major part of a play, though.

Different classes/playbooks would have different lists of “twists” to choose from. There would also be ways of “clearing” checks and maybe gaining new “twists” as a character advanced.

Has anyone done this already? Any inherent problems/road bumps to avoid with this idea?

(Obviously, this is going to be a very “no-myth”, improv-based, director-stance kind of story game, so any questions of immersion-breaking and such need not be raised.)

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It sounds like you’re going for something that’s not exactly PbtA. So maybe none of this applies to what you’re going for. Just my opinion, I hope it helps.

There’s no roll involved, so I don’t see this as a move, it’s more like…gear. It’s giving power with no risk.

Maybe create a move that opens up the possibility of things going wrong. I’m not sure how exactly you want to phrase it, I wouldn’t write specific things for all these items, figure out something more general that covers all of them and expands on the concept of: 10+ yes, and…; 7-9 Yes, but…; 6- No, and…

I would also simplify the items to allow more narrative variation and potential problems.
A Safehouse (doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t find you depending on how you roll)
Free Passage (oh damn we’re on a pirate ship!)
A Password (I hope this code is worth the price we paid…)
Rumor of a secret passage (is it actually there? are they waiting to ambush us?)
You are owed a favor. (from a gang? a politician?)
Reach out to someone from your past. (a love? your estranged brother? “has what you need” is pretty vague it should work well.
You bribed someone (was it enough, was it the right person, have they had a change of heart, did bad guy pay them more?)

Maybe the character’s prep was good, maybe it was terrible. Maybe someone messed up your perfectly planned escape, etc. To just give them these things without playing to find out seems like a missed opportunity for some great storytelling.

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Very good points. I’m not currently thinking of these as moves per se, more as “freebies”.

But yeah, they are skipping over the ability to “play to find out”, but that might be my goal?

Or another way to look at it - One mechanical part of this game I’m working on is definitely the ability for all players to invent facts about the setting on the fly, with a roll specifically doing basically what you describe above.

So, the Fighter (placeholder class names for the time being) is totally able to try and “remember” that there’s a secret passage here, but they’ll have to roll to see if there’s complications (ambush, etc.) or if it’s even true.

Whereas the Thief has this power - “Rumors of a Secret Passage”. No roll, it’s an automatic success.

Sort of trying to hardcode certain archetypical twists into the playbooks…

But you’re right, it could end up being to easy/boring/predictable. Something to think about.

Another idea is to automatically include complications in the powers themselves. For example:

You happen to have something very valuable that they’ll accept as payment. Why do you hesitate to give it up?

or

You remember a secret about this that a mentor once told you. Why will revealing it cause a problem?

Putting the responsibility for creating the complications into the players’ hands…

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Oooh, I like baking in costs/complications into the moves themselves. You get this one thing, but then you have to give up this other thing / this other complication happens.

Another way to go about it would be some kind of economy. Player earns tokens or points in exchange for narrative vulnerability or whatever, which they can cash in for these moves to fire off.

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That’s basically what Avery Alder’s Dream Askew does, actually! Players have actions they can always do, actions which earn them tokens, and actions which require them to spend tokens.

As for this, seems like a fine diceless move. “When you need access to something shady, choose one and mark it off the list.” It would be very cool indeed to apply this on a larger scale. Maybe you can refresh moves…or maybe you have to replace them with new ones to gain more options, evolving your character as you go.

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This is a good idea and can be a lot of fun.

Lots of things to consider, like how and whether you want it to be interactive (between player and GM, between players, between setting and player, etc, or just at the player’s purview). Do you want it to be a freebie, or do you want it to be a tense and interesting choice?

If so, include complications, an economy, or both.

I could see a list of “boons” (these cool things you have in your pocket) and “complications”, and when you call on a “boon”, you have to call on a “complication” as well (and another player or the GM gets to detail that).

So, maybe your list of good things (boons) has “an old flame”, so you pick that, and the complication is “You owe them, big time - ask the player on the left what they [your old flame] hold over your head”. You check off the boon, pick that complication, and it leads you to ask the player on your left for details.

A potential issue is whether you want the game to turn into a “player cleverness” rodeo. Have enough of these on each character sheet, and every obstacle, problem, or conflict in the game will be resolved by a player thinking up a fun way to bring in one of these “boons”. That could be cool (narration with creative constraints, based on the prompts) or terrible (you’re hoping to challenge the characters’ skills).

Also, you should consider how these will be handled if they come up during player vs. player conflicts. Does anyone get a veto? Do they ‘trump’ other things happening in the scene? Who, if anyone, has to “sign off” on the details?

For a simple example, let’s I’m playing a pirate, and you want to come onto my ship. I say, “no way! I don’t allow your kind here!” (I’m quite an asshole, apparently. Hopefully that makes me a good pirate!)

You respond, “Ha! I’m using my ‘free passage on a pirate vessel’ boon.”

Is this desirable and good? Is it breaking the game? Is it time to bring in a complication? And so forth; good to give that a thought before you design/play.

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Lots of good stuff here. There’s definitely a lot to think about before coming up with anything concrete.

Looking up Dream Askew, there’s definitely some overlap there - I need to get that (I love Monster Hearts so I’d probably end getting it anyway eventually).

As far as things turning into a “Player Cleverness Rodeo”…yes, I think that’s exactly what I want! :slightly_smiling_face:

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I really like the flavour and effect of what you’ve got here. While I tend to agree that it feels a bit more like gear than a move I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It could even replace the Playbook Background/Race slot.

One thing I like to do with free form-moves like this is give the player a list of advantages (It’s close by, you know how to get in, you know who owns it etc, etc) and a list of disadvantages (It’s dangers, it’s well-known, a rival hangs out there etc) and for every advantage they select they also choose a danger. Usually the advantages are veyr specific (i.e. “It’s well lit” would apply to a secret passage but not a password) and the disadvantages are very general (“It’s going to cost you” could apply to anything) because players aren’t encouraged to choose any more advantages than they need.

The upshot is that you could have a move that reads like this:

When you need to get in or get out now, don’t worry. Thanks to your sordid history you know about a ________. Choose up to 3 of the following which describe it:

It’s very nearby.
It’s unguarded
Whatever’s after you doesn’t know about it
etc

Then choose as many from the following list as you chose from the first list:

It’s going to cost you dearly
It’s dangerous
It’s notorious
etc

It gets a bit wordy but if you format it like the Ranger’s Animal Companion move you can tighten it up a lot.

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I’d recommend checking out Bluebeard’s Bride - the majority of the moves have no roll associated. Most of them allow you to ask a question of the GM or propose something about the situation.

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Its not PbtA but these remind me somewhat of the Unique Conditions that Fate introduced in Dresden Accelerated. In that you might have a condition of say Followers with 5 boxes that you tick off as you use the resource but can recover them over time. For the most part they’re associated with particular stunts that require marking the condition off in order to activate the stunt.

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What I really like here is a simple movement between various levels of involvement to introduce something new. Like certain playbooks can just choose a benefit and other playbooks have to roll for it. That avoids the dreaded “we can’t do that because we are missing X” from play. Many games have encountered that problem with gear, but I think there are many more opportunities to bring backgrounds/resources kind of stuff into the game that way. In many storygames there are easy ways around it, or players feel already comfortable doing whatever, but putting this into rules would help a lot with shyer and less experienced players to jumping right into co-authoring the fiction.

Also, how about offering options here: Even if it’s automatic, asking the players to introduce a complication to the twist (like you suggested with the leading questions) could help players to come up with something on the spot. So instead of having no creative constraints, they first have to pick what options helps them most, than add a complication, and voilá, you have a mini-scene.

Maybe even tie this into the backstory of the characters (each choice has to tie into your past, or be done as a flashback, or just as an off-scene like in The Between) and you have character development built in.

Another point, sometimes players are more interested to see what the MC (or other players) have in mind instead of defining it themselves. So maybe players can also roll for it and get a variable resource (like “keep x”) to define stuff while it comes up, or ask the MC questions about it, or even the other players. The Study move in Hearts of Wulin is a good example, where you can either ask questions or define a fact.

That way you can use a single move to cover everything from players orienting themselves (asking questions), preparing themselves (building up resource points for later), them adding to the fiction (pick a benefit), to the table making it more complicated (either themselves, or ask someone else [maybe that even gives you additional resource points], to having multiple layers (it’s about the main story, but also about the characters back story).

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No, I’d say this move provides surprises for the other players and the GM. So it’s still very much “play to find out” – maybe even more so. 3/5 or 4/5 of the people at the table will be surprised with the Thief has the password, depending on how good the GM is at keeping all the players’ moves in mind at all times.

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Good point! @Jon

So here’s a mockup of what I’m thinking about. Twists are on the second (back) page. Currently I’m considering having different “levels” of twists…the ones near the top are just straight-up advantageous, the ones in the middle have a “drawback” or complication associated with using them, and the last is a one-use only kind of thing for big heroic climax.

Still playing with how to unmark the squares. Probably having it based on missed rolls (ala many PbtA games) and maybe using some kind of TSoY key mechanic…

I really like what Dream Askew does, where there are negative moves that earn you tokens and positive moves that cost tokens…that would necessitate a longer list though…

I like this. I think you could easily add some opportunities for extra color, future events and possible relationships, like so:

  • You know the secret password. Who do you now owe?
  • You know a safehouse you can get to. Why is everyone but you welcome there?
  • You know a secret way past the guards. What makes it precarious?
  • You paid one of them off beforehand. Why can’t you fully trust them?
  • You have a favor to collect from a local gang. What did you do for them?

I really like what Dream Askew does, where there are negative moves that earn you tokens and positive moves that cost tokens…

This was my other suggestion! It’s one of those simple yet potentially very energizing ideas.

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@Heckmueller - I’ll definitely check out Hearts of Wulin and see what that move is about.

Also, I agree there should be a resource/reward/cost associated with whether one answers the “complication” question themselves or lets the GM (or another player) do it. I will think on that.

@Dutch - Yeah, the more I think on the options, the more I’m inclined to put a “complication” question on all of them.

It’s really a question of whether you want these “moves” to settle or resolve problems/situations, create new problems, or open up new opportunities. Give it a thought and design accordingly!

I like the idea that you can sometimes get them “for free”, with no strings attached, but under other circumstances you end having to agree to an unpleasant complication.

It’s not too different from a 10+ outcome vs. A 7-9 outcome in feel, so you can think of it that way, if it helps.

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Here’s an update on what I’ve got currently…

LINK

I’m still wavering back and forth on some of these design questions, so keep them coming!

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