Advanced Dungeon World Next 2

The past few months I've been developing my own personal take on fantasy PbtA gaming. What is this game about?
Well, plain and simple fantasy adventuring, but I felt the need to create it because ...

EDIT 18-04-2018
Since things are picking up steam the name of the project had to get a bit more serious. I explain this better in THIS short post on G+. I'm not redacting this article, but know that from today the name of this game shall be Fantasy World.


The Why

This project is an experiment touching on my personal PtbA degeneration theory. I might write a whole article about it, but in a nutshell it's the notion that: after the first Apocalypse World got published, the vast majority of its PbtA heirs lost sight of what made the original design good in the first place, devolving towards a more "traditional" designs with every subsequent PbtA generation.

Each PbtA game is, obviously, its onw creature. Sure, it uses a basic game structure that is more or less inspired by AW, but the design goals might be very different: different setting, different play stile, different themes to be explored, different everything. Yet, some elements seem to be common, and even presented as the reason why a designer chose the PbtA structure rather than another. Let's say these are core features that are commonly considered integral to most PbtA games. It is these features that I see degrading, just like a message in a telephone game:
- the MC has more and more prep work to do
- the MC has more and more shots to call during active play
- some Moves are so unclear and abstract as to require repeated negotiation any time they are (maybe) brought into play
- some Moves have effects that are almost exclusively numerical
- the number itself of super-specific Moves increases making it difficult to keep track of them
- there is a general tendency of rulebooks to offer GM guidelines and advice rather than clear cut procedures

After seven years of this trend the second edition of AW sets again the golden standard of PbtA design... but it also shows some of the above mentioned symptoms. Especially in my practical experience, when I see how people all over the web play these games and talk about them.
Jason D'Angelo is writing The Daily Apocalypse on Google Plus, a series of bite sized articles offering an in depth analyses of the AW2 text. In general I deem most of his posts as being pure gold and I urge anyone playing or designing a PbtA game to go check them out. But by contrast this very same analyses also shows just how much stuff in the AW2 text is practically hidden to the average reader, leading me to wonder.
Have the other PbtA games noticed and internalized such subtleties?
In my opinion, no. This is the reason why the core PbtA features keep degrading with each new PbtA game, and the reason why I see a lot of gamers playing PbtA games in a way that encourages the hand waving of rules and spreads the unspoken idea that to properly enjoy a PbtA game you need a proverbial GoodGM(tm) and group of GoodPlayers(tm).
It's not exactly square-one of the rpg design and culture, but it's uncomfortably leaning in that direction.

The What

So here I am, trying to see if I'm capable of fixing the problems I perceive. And then of course I'm adding my own personal spin to it all, because I want my game to communicate my own personal aesthetics and tastes through the play experience it enables. Enter the temporarily titled Advanced Dungeon World Next 2 (warning: here be irony).

The game started as a blend of Apocalypse World 2ed, because I consider it the best designed and explained PbtA currently around, and Dungeon World, because it is the de facto king of Fantasy PbtA games and I want to craft a somewhat "classic" fantasy adventure experience. Hopefully my personal work and additions will make this mix into something with its own soul and shape. The main features I am trying to implement are:

- reduced procedural ambiguity and the need for the interpretation and negotiation of rules

- to make the World's role (my version of MC/GM) easier to run

- to make it clearer if-when-how to use Moves

- Move effects more focused on fictional positioning rather than number crunching

- reducing Moves clutter by reorganizing and rewriting all Common and Class Moves, completely removing both AW Battle moves and DW "filler" moves. A big shout out goes to the people behind Worlds​ ​of​ ​Adventure as their work helped me a lot in rethinking some classes

- removed Bonds and HX in favor of a system of Personal and Fellowship Drives

- removed the XP-per-roll in favor of Keys inspired to The Shadow of Yesterday- removed Race, Alignment and Sex moves in favor of the aforementioned Drive and Key systems, plus the effect of some Common Moves now provides character and relationship exploration opportunities

- the World section follows the AW2 blueprint, but then each element has been rewritten to (hopefully) better and more clearly support the design goals I mentioned earlier. In general I turned guidelines and best practices into rules and procedures; I made important details more explicit; I merged together similar elements

- stuff that was relegated in the World section I have instead moved ahead, where all Players can see

- for the campaign prep I chose AW2 Threat Map system over the old DW Fronts, but then used DW in medias res first session approach rather than AW2 normal day one, as I believe it works better for fellowship play

- I implement a completely narrative Harm system,
as this is what originally sparked this whole project idea. I want violence to have big scary consequences, to never be trivial, and to not be bogged down by matters of balancing or number crunching.

Actual Play

After some promising blind testing I decided to whip up a group of brave people to give a spin myself to the developing rules.

First we had a brief chat about the kind of fantasy adventure game we wanted. We had no crazy ideas and just wanted to get to play, so we went for good old "default fantasy" but with a bit more of a fairy tale vibe. As reference we mentioned things like Fillory and Fantaghirò. Quick and easy, we moved on to character generation.

After a brief presentation of the available Classes we ended up with a Druid, a Wizard and a Ranger. As usual, everything went quick and smooth right until the parts that required creative decisions and group coordination: namely Personal and Fellowship Drive. Things went fine there too, mind you, but it took more time than just picking a Class and assigning a couple of numbers. On the other hand, this extra time was not spent in vain, as some great ideas came out of this chatty moment, both for the characters and the game world.

Isa plays Roderick the Ranger. A human with sharp eyes, wild hair and sturdy body that wears a fur vest. His two starting moves (Hunt & Track and Animal Companion) led to the creation of Fane, Roderick’s wolf companion, a ferocious and savage beast trained to fight monsters. His Personal Drive is “searching for meaning”. I’ll talk about this later.

Greta plays Shania the Druid. A half-human half-banshee (another thing I’ll talk about later) with wild eyes and long hair braided with leaves, wearing mud stained weathered hides. Her two starting moves (Born of the Soil and Spirit Tongue) led us to discover how she grew up in the swamp at the heart of the Great Forest, and the fact that being a Druid is not a job or profession but rather something you are born with. Her Persona Drive is “improve my contact with nature and the world”.

Sandro plays Kayman the Wizard. A half-human half-elf with haunted eyes, wild hair and a sinew body, dressed in worn robes. His two starting moves (Arcana Unhearted and Ritual) led us to discover how there really is only one “wizard” at any given time, and only one sorcerer, only one magician, only one warlock, etc ... each one representing a different style/school of arcane magic, each one passing on the mantle to a single pupil before reaching the end of their existence. He is the chosen apprentice of an old hag living in the Great Forest. Also he doesn’t have a book of spells; instead his magical knowledge is stored within trinkets and decorations he wears, handcrafted from natural materials such as wood and stone and bone. His Personal Drive is “protect the balance” which is something magical with real world effects, but that for now he only knows as a moral philosophy.

Finally, they all agreed that their Fellowship Drive would be to “reach the land beyond the White Mountains” and that the fellowship was born very recently for this very purpose. Kayman had some vision about destiny and balance expressing his need to go in a far away place. Thus he needed help and protection for the journey ahead, so he ended up being the (not so) old weirdo in the tavern offering an improbable quest to strangers he just met. On their hand, the others wanted to travel to far away lands for their own personal reasons, and found each other’s company and support to be a sensible prospect.

Of Races and Books

Everyone was pleased with how the game handles Races. Which means, as a purely fictional and aesthetic element. The Protagonist Players felt free to play whatever they wanted without having to worry about balancing or a host of small special rules. And I as World Player ended up with novel and intriguing ideas served right into my lap.Greta’s half-banshee took everyone by surprise, and by asking just a few questions it fitted perfectly within our fairytale-ish setting. We discovered how in our game world a banshee is not (only?) a scary undead creature that kills with horrible wails, but (also?) a race of humanoid people, so pale they could be albinos, that can sing (or scream) in such a marvelous and terrifying way that most think of it has magical.

By the same token, questions about the half-elf introduced a strong element of racism in the story, as Sandro explained how being a half breed earned Kayman a life of grief and ostracism from both sides; not really persecuted, but definitely considered "other" and relatively unwelcome.

A similar effect was produced by the Wizard's Arcana Unearthed move, that simply states how the spells and arcane knowledge have to be recorded somewhere physical, and how this record could be a classic book but also something different. In past tests this resulted in a Dwarf rune-caster keeping spells within jewels and gems, and in a Man'o'Stone keeping spells in grooves carved on his brittle skin. And then of course our current half-elf Kayman, looking like a crazy nature shaman full of trinkets made of bone and stone and wood.

Of Drives, Weak and Strong

Years of indie gaming got me used to coming up with my own goals and objectives for the character I am playing. Actionable stuff that gives me, and everyone playing with me, a clear idea of what my character wants to do in the near future. So I was pretty worried about everyone’s Drives. In my eyes the Personal Drives of the Protagonists were too abstract and broad, not easily actionable. Find meaning? Contact nature? Something balance? Too vague! Weak sauce! This stuff will never be able to guide the Protagonists, to drive their actions, to shape their goals! Or to give the World Player a clear idea of what to throw at them to engage them.

But I didn't want to push the Protagonists too hard on their very first session together as a new group, especially considering their gaming background.
As it happens, my brand new group comes from an almost exclusive experience with D&D (somewhere around the 3rd edition) and other traditional rpgs, where players are often spoon fed external motivation: someone gives you a quest, someone offers you a job, something needs saving/slaying right beside you wink wink, etc.

So did not want to push the issue too hard, as they did put thought and effort in coming up with those Drives, and maybe they were things that felt meaningful and important to them. Maybe it was me that was unable to understand their point of view. So I let it be, also to test if the system would have problems in the case of not so clear and strong Drives.

The result after two sessions seems to be positive.
In the absence of obvious external direction all Protagonists seem to have individually come up with a Personal Drives that (each with different words) reflects one clear underlying goal: I want to travel!
This is how three very different and inward looking Personal Drives turned out to be compatible and well aligned, giving birth to a simple and functional Fellowship Drive: to reach the land beyond the White Mountains! A land none of the PCs had yet seen, and that the local people only knew through stories and fables and the few reports of those who travel there for commerce.

The Drives will change in the near future, I’m sure of it, and the game system will expect and support this. But for now, it seems to me that these ones will be adequately serviceable for the time being.

First and Second Session

I’ve always loved the “quiet” start of Apocalypse World because I am a fan of characters as individuals rather than members of a group, but in the case of ADWN2 I don’t find it ideal for a game focused on the action adventures of a fellowship. Here I chose to follow in the footsteps of Dungeon World with an in medias res scene. My procedures instruct the Protagonists to choose from a short list of binary choices, helping the World to frame a first scene that draws from those elements, plus all the info gathered during char gen, especially the Fellowship Drive.

And so our story begins in Sharpleaf, a small village of hunters and craftsmen within the Great Forest ... where the Fellowship faces an angry mob.

The scene went smoothly. Protagonists started getting familiar with their Moves. The Moves themselves worked fine, offering options and intel, setting up problems and solutions, keeping things moving. We even had a short fight that left the Wizard with a big scar on his left forearm, something that counts as a fictional TAG written on the Protagonist’s sheet, and will surely come back into play in the future. In the end the Fellowship fled the village, leaving behind angry commoners and a trampled “sacred garden”. Surely this will not come back to bite them in the ass :P

We ended the session with the Journey move. They discussed how to reach the mountains, and realised that none of them had any idea how, settling for travel towards another village where they hoped to find maps and guides. The move had them narrate a short montage representing the brief voyage. It worked fine, but not as I wanted it to be, so by the time we played the subsequent session it had been rewritten.

Unfortunately at this point we lost the Druid, as her schedule only allowed for sporadic participation.

The second session started in the very windy village of Bitterleaf, in the area between the Great Forest and the foot of the White Mountains. Here the Protagonists gathered information on their destination and how to reach it, and in so doing got to know some villagers and the lands where they live. Eventually they decided to travel to another nearby village, Flatstone, to find a guide ... and to put some distance between themselves and a group of Sharpleaf hunters who came looking for them in a very unfriendly way. This second Journey, using the modified move, worked much better and resulted in some nice bonding moments.

The chat with the guide also brought about an unexpected turn of events as the Fellowship  decided to avoid risking their lives (and the life of a father caring for his adorable daughter) (behold the power of actually caring for likable NPCs!) just to undergo a rushed trip through the perilous mountains. Instead they opted to wait a couple of months for the normal trade caravan to come around. In the meantime they’ll roam the area to hunt monsters, something that the Ranger suddenly asked about. I replied by offering a couple of juicy gossips that could be explored in the near future, and the session ended.

Final Considerations

Overall the Adventuring moves (Make Camp, Journey and Restock) are providing exactly the effect I was looking for: to create space and opportunity for the Protagonists to bond, to talk about each other, to be people in addition to being adventurers.

Another effect is to help the Protagonist Players pause to reflect and imagine the lands they travel through, which is important to me. The World Player can describe whatever, but unless the Protagonist Players focus their attention and imagination on such descriptions they could just as well be “bla bla bla forest bla bla bla problem bla bla bla what do you do?”. Instead these moves allow Protagonists to take more notice of the landscape and its feature, while offering the World additional material to work with, and be surprised about.

The system of Keys is already paying off big time. On the one hand Kayman has almost leveled up, as Sandro is more talkative and offered plenty of actions and commentary to represent his character's race, culture, beliefs and needs.
This in turn prompted Isa to be more daring in having Roderick express himself, which led Kayman to not only talk about himself but also to ask about Roderick's stuff.
Just like with Moves, I am still pointing out moments in the fiction that could be seen as triggering a Key, sometimes right there and then, sometimes at the end of a scene or of the whole session (when the End Session move asks you to reconsider your Keys and Drives anyway). The game mechanics are slowly and gently influencing Protagonists' play habits.

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was how good and effective some classic Apocalypse World principles are, that unfortunately I rarely see put to good use by GMs. For example the not so glamorous but oh so useful Think Off Screen Too principle leading, on a 1-6 roll, to the creation of a countdown but also to the immediate success of the on screen Protagonist action.

The reasoning being:
- when you have invisible stuff happening off screen
- you are still supposed to have things evolving on screen
- but Protagonist failure would equate to a second World move
- which is not allowed
- while Protagonist success evolves things just fine

- so create/advance a countdown AND let the Protagonist on screen action succeed

This reasoning can be more or less inferred from AW2 text by piecing together threads and hints. Although in more than one occasion the examples provided have the MC smack the Players with more than one Hard Move at the same time. And the concept of a Hard Move producing on screen success, even if balanced by off screen badness, is never very highlighted. Which exemplifies my initial problem and explains why I so rarely see such technique used in actual play: if a GM needs to do detective work in order to know how to play, then the rules’ effectiveness is diminished as a source of knowledge, and people revert to looking for how-tos in tribal interpretation and common sense.