Rhapsody of Blood - Pacing Confrontations with MC Reactions

Hi folks! First time poster here, looking forward to Gauntlet Con later this month!

I’m going to be MC’ing Jay Iles’ Rhapsody of Blood for my local gaming group in a couple weeks, and I have some questions about how the pacing of the confrontation sequences is expected to work.

The “Reactions” section (p.56) suggests that the GM makes reactions in the following four situations:

  • When a player rolls a 6- on a move.
  • When everyone’s looking to you to find out what happens next.
  • When the regent’s clock ticks.
  • When the players offer you up a golden opportunity [by taking an action that has been well-established in the fiction to have a specific and direct consequence].

That said, the example confrontation in the book has a number of cases where the GM appears to respond to a player’s declared intentions with a reaction that doesn’t seem to follow the above guidelines, rather than invoking a move that the player intends to trigger. For example (p. 28):

Mandrake: Time for me to get involved. I’ll . . . charge into that cloud looking to tackle the bastard.
GM: Alright, you charge out of Wendell’s sanctuary into the dust. But it’s choking, and actually filled with tiny ice crystals, so you’re having trouble finding the acolyte.

And again, on p.29:

Lucretia: Can do. I’ll follow the tendril back to its source, and try to stab up the acolyte.
GM: As you charge in, your ears pick up a sudden scream of warning from those ghosts: another tendril is pushing towards you, needle-thin.

In both of these cases, one could make a solid argument that the player was trying to Confront the foe head-on, which is an established confrontation move that calls for a +Iron roll to expose the acolyte’s weaknesses and generate progress towards defeating them. Rather than calling for a Confront role, however, the example GM makes an acolyte reaction and asks the player to respond. What justified this decision in the mechanics?

I’ve listened to a few episodes of the excellent Actual Play podcast of RoB, “Red Moon Rising” on Project Blue Book, and the same thing happens there in Episode 1 @18:00: the first explorer declares that they are drawing their rapier to “Confront” the regent, charging towards the regent, and that they “don’t really want to give them a chance to do anything,” and the GM responds not by calling for a Confront roll but by having the regent throw a fireball at the explorer.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’d like the confrontations to have some narrative heft and don’t want them to devolve into a rote stream of “someone makes a move to create an opening, someone make a move to strike, rinse/repeat two more times, on to the next ward”. Given the fictional positioning of a boss-fight, it makes sense that the antagonist would have ample opportunities to unleash attacks on the explorers. On the other hand, I feel like saying “what honesty demands” implies that if a player is clearly trying to trigger a move, and the fiction hasn’t explicitly established an obstacle preventing the move, the GM should let the move be triggered.

Does anyone have any advice as to how I should approach this friction and navigate it with my players? I’m frequently a worrywart, so “you’re overthinking this” is absolutely a valid answer. :grin:

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There’s nothing Really wrong with your read of those examples, but I think those examples are not demonstrating GM reactions —all of them, to start, are far to soft for what a player should expect on a 6-, a golden opportunity where a GM is usually expected to make a hard move in a PbtA game (i.e. “the gas is actually choking: you’re debilitated and can’t see anything” would be a GM reaction).

In each of those examples, the GM is describing more of the situation or environment to a player who charged into a situation, so they haven’t even reached a place fictionally to Confront anything — there’s other stuff happening in the fiction that both the PC and player didn’t know.
All of those examples could have been preceded by information gathering rolls. There’s still “what truth demands” here because, in fact, it’s worse than a player/character thought.

This also allows the GM to both set precedence and play the game as the GM, because what if the players just happen to roll 10+ throughout a whole boss fight? The GM doesn’t rightfully have narrative control and the whole thing’s a pushover, right? What honesty demands also includes the regent not actually letting some plucky adventurer “charge in because they don’t really want to give the regent the chance to do anything” — of course the regent would throw a fireball!
In this case, the Confront move is not appropriate, because the player is not positioned to Confront anything; instead, they need to make that risk roll if they want to push and Confront or they need to deal with the fireball.

The GM reactions are a set of guidelines — they aren’t hard rules. @Jeremy_Strandberg ‘s Learning to Run Dungeon World has fantastic PbtA GMing advice, especially concerning reactions/moves and principles (his in-person PbtA advice is also fantastic, so hopefully this summons will work!).

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I would disagree with this: “honesty” also means being honest to your prep and to the reality of the world, so if there’s something you know that the player doesn’t know about, being honest might mean saying an unwelcome truth and establishing that in the fiction. Not everything gets set up ahead of time; sometimes things are made clear in the middle of the action.

This gives the GM a lot of power! That’s why every PbtA I can think of includes the “be a fan of the characters” principle. You’re making a lot of judgment calls about when and how to use GM Moves versus opening the floor to player moves, and you’ll know things players don’t know, so you need to guide your usage of that information.

Sometimes, trying something is the only way to find out it’s not possible for it to work. Sometimes that puts players in a dangerous spot, sometimes it doesn’t. (For a different example, consider “I jump across the chasm”, followed by “you get closer to the chasm, and that’s when you realize it’s far, far wider than you thought; definitely too far to jump with ease, and you’re risking a lot if you don’t make it”.)

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Maybe @Jay has some thoughts on the matter?

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Hi Will!

You’re focusing on when/whether the GM is “allowed” to make a reaction (aka a “GM move” in other PbtA games). But those examples hinge on whether or not the player’s declared action has met the fictional threshold for triggering them.

With this exchange…

…there’s an unspoken judgment occurring. The GM is deciding that Mandrake’s action didn’t rise to the threshold of “confronting the foe head-on,” because of fiction that the GM had already established or that was clear in their mind but not communicated. The GM is communicating that “no PC move was triggered here” and then (because everyone is looking at them to see what happens) making a GM move/reaction to push things along.

In the actual conversation of person-to-person play, you might see all sorts of clarification or revision happening in this exchange. Like, I can easily see that conversation leading to this:

Mandrake: Whoa, really? I didn’t realize that the cloud was so obscuring that I couldn’t see the guy. I wouldn’t just rush out there if I didn’t have a clear target. Instead, I’ll stay where I am and peer out into the blowing dust, trying to spot him."

…followed by…

GM: Oh, sure. Cool. Sounds like you’re < Reading a Sitch / Discerning Realities / Checking Things Out / etc>. Roll it!"

or…

GM: Oh, sure. But the cloud really is too thick and obscuring to spot him from Wendell’s sanctuary. Unless you’ve got some fancy tech, you’ll need to go out into that mess in order to have any chance of finding him."

Not every player will advocate for themselves that way, so I personally think it’s important to:

  1. pay close attention to body language, facial expressions, etc. and watch for signs of confusion, frustration, etc. If they seem taken aback by what you declared, then pause, clarify, give them the opportunity to backtrack and revise.
  2. clarify the fiction with players anytime it seems to you that they’re doing something “dumb.” So instead of the GM’s original statement, it might have been better to say “Okay, just to be sure… you can’t actually see the acolyte right now, you just know he’s somewhere out in all that dust. It looks pretty nasty, you sure you still want to do that?”

Point being: just because the player says “I do X,” doesn’t mean that X is possible right now, or that X will in fact trigger the move that they want to trigger, or that they’ll be able to do X before something else happens in the fiction. There’s a moment of judgment happening where the GM and the rest of the table decide whether or not that declaration triggers a move, and which move, and if it doesn’t trigger a PC move, then we’re all looking at the GM and it’s time for a GM move/reaction.

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Thanks for tagging me in @shanel! @Jeremy_Strandberg has the right of it - in those examples the player hasn’t quite hit the trigger to Confront the enemy, and the GM is further detailing the threat in the situation so that there is a clear clash for the player to test their might against. In classic PbtA play one of the things a GM has to do, sometimes, is tell the player that things aren’t as simple as they thought, or that thanks to the established fiction (or the GM’s prep) a described course of action isn’t quite as simple as the player expected.

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Awesome! Thank you all for your excellent responses. I think this topic is giving me the opportunity to learn a critical lesson about how “fiction-first” works in PbtA.

I’ve been leaning on the rules as a series of constraints to keep myself from “behaving badly” as a GM (see previous worrywart comment), but it’s clear from this discussion that my role as a GM includes speaking my own part of the fiction and advocating for the integrity of the world. (See “Make the world seem real”, “[say] what your prep demands”, etc.) Doing so is easy for me to contemplate when my vision of the fiction doesn’t conflict with the players’ visions, but I’ll need to work on my social discussion/negotiation skills to handle situations where the players want to do something that I don’t think has been earned in the fiction.

Are there any good follow-up references for how PbtA MCs should handle these sorts of social disagreements in the narrative? Things like “I race across the room and attack him” (when the room is very large and the person doesn’t have a ranged weapon), to “I chop the moon in half” (when the fiction hasn’t established this as being a reasonably possible action.)

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I don’t have any good references for you, but my suggested approaches for those are:

  • “It’s a really big room; If you start brazenly charging across it, he’s probably going to hit you with something long before you get to him. Are you sure your want to do that?”
  • “How do you plan to do that?”

The first of those is just basic good GMing practice anywhere – you’re seeing a PC doing something that doesn’t sound like a good idea based on your understanding of the fiction, so you restate the facts that the character should be aware of, and check if the player still wants to do the thing. I recommend this technique in basically every GM’d game when a player declares an action that seems foolish or illogical.

The second of those is basic PbtA stuff: If a player hasn’t established how they are going to do a thing, ask them about their process until you arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, whether that’s you saying “Huh, yeah, I guess given your background and abilities, that’s a thing you can do.” or the player choosing another course of action. This works equally well for other vague or difficult tasks (“I kill him!”) or for people who try to go “straight to the rules” and invoke a move without saying how they are doing it.

Between the two of them, these approaches cover most situations.

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I don’t know about resources, but those examples smack of poor sportsmanship on the part of the player, not the GM. Sometimes that happen, that you get a player who just wants to press the game’s buttons and stretch the narrative constraints. If the won’t be reeled in by your judgements, then pausing and having a conversation about tone and expectations is always good. If they continue, they just may not be a suitable player for your table, which is okay.

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