13 May, 2018

Walkabout: Moving Forward

There are a number of reasons why I'm not using PbtA as the foundation for Walkabout.
  1. I still think it's a fad system. A bandwagon that too many people are still jumping on. Eventually people will realise that it's being used in ways it really shouldn't, and there are better systems out there to do different things... a d that underlying it all is a system that is pretty crude to start with. Yes, it does certain things well, but evangelising it into everything isn't doing the game engine any favours.
  2. It sets a good starting point for character's, but players are bound by their character's playbooks and developing beyond those original stereotypes is problematic. "Oh", I hear the Apocalypse-heads claim, "it's just like the way story develops despite the rules in old school D&D. The stories you tell can be all about rebelling against those stereotypes, or using those stereotypes to transcend themselves"...or similar such nonsense. I want no part of that... that's not what Walkabout is about.
  3. It defines genre by limiting the conversations that players and MC can tell. Honestly, for those reasons it's good at what it does. But like a white guy in a basement trying to look pseudo-woke by screaming "cultural apprriation" every time the conversation touches on an ethnic group they don't understand, this is a game about blurring stories, using fragments of different genres to create something bigger than the sum of it's parts, using shorthand to get everyone on the same page then moving beyond those abbreviated concepts to get a deeper cultural understanding.
  4. "But", says the Apocalypse-head, "PbtA lets you create your own moves on the fly, so you can make the system work with the narrative conversation at your table, regardless of what is happening." Yes, and no. The way most PbtA games are written (and every time I've played one), genre is king, and playbooks support that genre. People spend a bunch of time looking through their playbooks, trying to find a move that fits the current events, even the MC does this. Then, when they can't find one, they modify an existing move that vaguely reflects the situation... and everything feels a bit arbitrary after that point. Why not work in reverse, by starting with a game engine that's more open, and then refine or define signature moves appropriate to the characters as they define their relationships to the land, the people, and the stories that underlie reality.
  5. PbtA is also pretty narrow in the way it handles task difficulties. That is, without fundamental modifications to the system, it doesn't. Instead it makes certain actions untenable until the situation is right, so a hard task might require a few tasks in a row setting up the primarily intended activity. This requires a good dialogue between MC and players, and I've seen this dialogue break down many times, a bit like an old text adventure game when you just didn't know the right command word to get through a certain room. Sorry, but I like my stake setting, and then allowing creativity and ingenuity to address challenges.

So, SNAFU it is.  


Early in the evolution between FUBAR and SNAFU, I had attributes based on the intended outcome of the actions rather than the character's inherent forces they were bringing to bear on the activity. I had "conflict" for physical fights, "influence" for talking and social intrigue, "knowledge" for skills and character intelligence, and "mysticism" for anything supernatural. A few playtests showed that players struggled with this idea, so I went back to the tried and true "physical, social, mental" structure, with "paranormal" covering things that transcended those. People grokked those better, so they'll generally stay. Attributes are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (or d4 to d12).

Abilities in SNAFU cover skills, knowledge, and any kind of edge where a character has an advantage compared to other times when they might use their attributes. They always add a flat +2 to a die result, or push the die result from one category up to the next (mechanically, these are the same thing). Many other static advantages and disadvantages in the game work similarly, adding or subtracting a level from a task resolution where they are applicable. This means that anyone can attempt anything, but they'll have more interesting results where these elements are applicable. They're also not like aspects in Fate where you need to spend some kind of currency to activate them, instead you just ensure the situation is appropriate for advantages to manifest, or work to avoid or circumvent disadvantages when they appear in the storyline.

A second form of character benefit is more nuanced, where instead of a flat bonus, an additional die is rolled (where only the best two dice are allocated to the result). These effects allow a minor possibility of change to a situation's outcome if the benefit is a d4, but could potentially be quite dramatic if the benefit is a d12. Because equipment varies in quality, it falls into this category, but it could just as easily applied to relationships between character's or connection to the world around them. This definitely fits with my goals of ensuring characters are integrated into the setting.

A general level of heroism applies in SNAFU, where The Law defines this as the Agent's rank. I haven't really thought of the name substituting for rank in this game, and I'm not going to cheapen it by using some pseudo-Aboriginal terminology, or take the words for child, adolescent, adult, mature adult, elder. Even if some Australian Indigenous nations do divide a person's life into 12 year intervals that basically fit this pattern, it might imply that everyone going on Walkabout from their childhood to prove their adolescence automatically has a d4 rank die...everyone leaving as a mature adult has a d10 rank die...and only the elders have d12s... but what does this mean for the other inhabitants of the world who haven't gone Walkabout...How do we measure their rank? And how do we measure those who have wisdom beyond their years... or a lack of wisdom? Rank isn't really a measure of wisdom anyway. So this is one of the aspects I'm going to have to be really careful with, and will require a bit more thought to put into an appropriate framework.

One of the things I haven't touched upon in The Law is reality bending magic. An inherent connection to the world where reality is altered, but also reacts by manipulating the enlightened one through metaphysical backlash. It was something I was really going to explore in Familiar, but there's no reason why it couldn't work here. Remembering that the original incarnation of Walkabout was generated through a Game Chef contest where "skin" was an ingredient, the original "magic" in the game was connected to the traditional concept of the "marked" adult. Characters would get tattooes, brands or other markings on their skin in honour of the tasks they had performed. Such markings would multitask as identity, honour to the spirits, and benefit to future tasks where similar actions are required. The magic system I have in mind is based a bit on the metaphysical trinity underlying the World of Darkness with a division of chaos (creation), law (stasis), and entropy (destruction). I touched on this in the second iteration of the Walkabout game, where the tokens had colours corresponding to these effects, so this feels like a good way to bring it back. Part of the idea for this system of paranormal effects simply links to the natural cycles of the universe. Imbalance can come from any of these aspects... so a good team would include character's capable of addressing any of these. The three aspects would start at d4, but each skin marking would be dedicated to one of the three, providing a benefit to a specific type of task, and bumping up the die size for the metaphysical aspect linked to the task. For example, a Tasmanian Devil marking of "combat prowess" would be linked to entropy because it is intended to destroy things. Historically, the colonial and federated governments of Australia banned the rituals of marking, so this is another delicate area. It's not an attempt to play on the 'magical black man' trope, because the characters of this game will be from all cultures and will be picking up the fragmentry pieces of the past to become new custodians of the world. Folksy wisdom in this milieu could similarly come from anywhere, but to requires breaking out of a western mindset to do it. Those who balance the world transcend culture and petty notions like ethnocentrism.

Yeah, I'm starting to write around in circles again.

The last thing I need to focus on is the groups who inhabit the world, because they'll also help to define the game. These groups will NOT be defined by race, nor will any culture be better than any other mechanically (despite what they may believe in the setting fiction). Most of my previous thoughts about the cultures of the setting still hold up. 

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