[PbtA] Highlighting and Conditions

I’ve never been 100% happy with the idea of highlighted stats in PbtA games, starting with Apocalypse World. The basic idea is very interesting, and I’ve seen some good play come out of it, but it’s never quite hooked us 100% in the games I played in. It seems like it could work better, or have more impact on play.

I experimented a fair bit with this in my Monsterhearts games, including a campaign where the players could each highlight a “story element” (usually an NPC, but it could also be a significant item or location, like “the missing STI test results”) at the beginning of each session. The rule was: any time a move is made with this element as its intended “target”, you mark experience.

For example, if Mrs. Ross was a “highlighted NPC”, you might mark experience when you try to “turn her on”, “shut her down”, or “gaze into the abyss” specifically about her (or any other move).

It worked pretty well to incentivize certain developments in play, although the most useful function was a way for me (as the MC) to narrow down where the session should head: since there were three players, having three NPCs at the start of each session written down on my sheet gave me a pretty clear idea of a scene or three I should frame as the session began. “Oh, we’re interested in Mrs. Ross and the cheerleader? Great; let’s find out what they’re up to.”

(Surprisingly, I don’t remember a player ever highlighting another PC, although that was quite explicitly allowed.)

All this got me thinking about highlighting and Conditions. Highlights are often chosen at the start of a session, before we even know what’s going on, and they can seem pretty irrelevant an hour later, when we actually see where things are going. (At least, this was true for us - a group which often headed in unexpected directions and relished surprising developments, instead of having a clear sense of what was about to happen each time we played.)

In addition, Conditions sometimes really lack “teeth”, and get forgotten or left by the wayside.

So, a thought:

What if one of the effects of Conditions was to change or move around your character’s highlights?

For example, when you suffer the Angry condition, your Cold and your Volatile get highlighted, replacing whatever highlights you had before. Now you’ll be tempted to go around shutting people down and lashing out at everyone.

You’ll probably want to remove that Condition sooner or later, if that’s not what you were planning on doing.

Later, a rival makes you look like a fool in front of the whole class. You are assigned the Condition Shamed - now, your highlights shift to your Dark and your Volatile, so you might spend time by yourself, running away and gazing into the abyss.

Has anyone else fooled around with PbtA mechanics that use highlighting dynamically, whether to do with Conditions or not? Are there games out there that do this, or have you tried it at your table?

(I was one of the first people involved with helping Avery brainstorm and put together the earliest drafts of Monsterhearts, and in the first playtesst draft, whoever had the most Strings on your character could assign your highlights. Not just at the start of the session, as in the current rules, but any time that changed - so, if I suddenly scored a String on you, and became the one with the most Strings on your character, I could reassign your highlighted stat! It was, unfortunately, too cumbersome to work smoothly and easily, but I really liked the implications of that rule.)

(It also occurs to me that in online play, some kind of macro or algorithm which automatically tracks “who has the most Strings” could make this rule workable again…)

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Never a fan of highlighted stats, and I appreciate that most current iterations of pbta have jettisoned the mechanic. BIG fan of ‘marking’ stats ala Masks and Hearts of Wulin, though.

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