Traps, PbtA & making stuff up

A few tweets inspired some thinking the other day. First here are the tweets:

(This isn’t the entire Twitter conversation, obviously; they’re just the parts I want to respond to. It’s not my intent to misrepresent anyone by cherry-picking their communications. Do go read the rest of the tweets if you’re curious! But don’t harass anyone, demand explanations from them, etc.)

The parts that really got me thinking are the links between the following statements:

  • ‘It’s definitely not true that traps can happen as the result of any 6- in a PBTA game.’
  • ‘It’s just that the idea that objects are generated/spawned into the world on a 6- is a common critique of Apocalypse World and its close cousins, but it’s just not accurate.’
  • ‘What’s frustrating is that this move is called “Reveal an unwelcome truth,” not “produce,” “create” or “concoct,” but still a lot of people hate it because they think it means “suddenly introduce something that wasn’t there before and has no reason to be there now.”‘

I’m going to be making some assumptions on the links between these statements. I don’t mean to put words in the original writer’s mouth, so anything that follows is not what I think they meant to say; it’s where my mind went all on its own in connecting all this together.

We start with looking to perceived/assumed/witnessed critics of powered-by-the-apocalypse (PbtA) games: that these people don’t like the idea that things enter the fictional world based on the result of a roll and that that criticism comes from a misreading of the rules.

From there, we pivot to a behavior to address the criticisms: don’t do the thing the critics wrongly accuse the game of doing. It’s sort of a moral victory; the critics dislike this thing we like, but they dislike it because they’re misreading it, and so we shouldn’t be doing the thing they wrongly accuse us of doing.

Again, this is just me drawing ligaments between separate statements because I don’t want to demand a longer explanation from a stranger on the internet. It’s a strawman! But a strawman I’m constructing deliberately away from the real human. As a thought experiment.

I disagree with this strawman on a few points.

1. That we should react to perceived criticisms of a game.

There are vocal critics of every game. Some of those critics mean well; maybe they’re trying to create a better game or engender a playstyle that they think is healthier or more fun. But in the end, people run games for the other folks at the table. If everyone understands that a trap, a person, or some other component of the fictional world might come into play based on roll results, it doesn’t matter if someone thinks that’s not how the game works.

2. That a GM should create the reality of a session beforehand and stick to what they made up.

I absolutely understand the icky feeling that comes with “the DM made up something to hurt me because of a bad roll.” There are decades of anecdotes about killer DMs who harass their players on a whim, and the idea that a concrete world—of verisimilitude—somehow binds a DM to something and keeps them from taking things out on the players.

And if you play with strangers a lot (or even if you play with acquaintances that you don’t know outside of gaming), maybe this is the way to go! It’s a kind of pact. Keeps things running smoothly.

But it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t have the time or energy to plan out a world or even a building ahead of time. I usually write a few lines of notes before a game and trust my instincts and my players. I make things up in the middle of every session. Sometimes it’s based on dice rolls and sometimes it’s just…because?

Which is not to say that I’d create a negative consequence that “has no reason to be there.” Another big PbtA best practice is “as follows from the fiction.” If you’re in a dungeon or a mad scientist’s lab, a sudden trap is something that, to me, follows from the fiction, and I hopefully gave some sort of signal in that vein to the players.

The other reason I’m supportive of making things up on the spot? My players often have better ideas than I do. They connect things in ways I never thought about. And I love that! And I love asking them what they think might happen on a bad roll. It brings them in, they might have awesome ideas, and it distributes the creative work that has historically been loaded on the GM. If I were a purist about what I’d created ahead of time, I couldn’t allow a player to introduce things I hadn’t considered.

3. That we should tell strangers on the internet how to play a game.

Linked to #1. We’re all involved in different circles of play, critique, philosophy, and we sometimes get very invested in those circles. I get it. I have a way of playing games that I’ve developed for years, and I have very good reasons for what I do. But those ways might not be for everyone. I hope they work for the people I play with, and if the don’t, I hope they’ll let me know or feel free to play somewhere else. To say that something is “definitely not true” about a game that is being made up as it’s played seems needlessly worshipful of the rules (which are always filtered through our own interpretations of and experiences with them).

(And before anyone says it, I’m sure that I have told someone they’re playing wrong or tried to tell them a better way to play. I mean, that’s sort of what this whole post is? So consider this part personally aspirational more than outwardly commanding. And it’s hopefully different to write in my isolated corner of the internet than to respond to someone on social media.)

Anyway, it seems like a big jump for the tweeter above to read “traps can happen as the result of say any 6-” and worry that might mean “that objects are generated/spawned into the world on a 6-” or “suddenly introduce something that wasn’t there before and has no reason to be there now.”

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