I've been asked to take my game setting, "The Wake", and turn it into a PBTA game. While many people I've gamed with will probably assume this means "moves, playbooks, and 2d6", I don't think it has to, and I've got the author's own words to back me up.
Vincent Baker has written a lot about PBTA, including "Using Apocalypse World to Outline and Draft Your Own RPG". The development process described there resembles the 12 principles derived from the Agile Manifesto in software. I'm going to talk about The Wake in the context of these two documents.
What is the Wake?
The one-sentence pitch I can give you is this:
The Wake is a superficially high fantasy world where the real world and the world of dreams have collided, in ways that are both good and bad for ordinary people.
That which we call "dreams" gives rise to both magic and monsters. Social structures exist to harness this power, but also to protect people from the worst of it. People have been forced into new ways of living to adapt to it, but in other ways, life goes on like normal. The very history of the world is uncertain. So in this sense, the Wake has a lot in common with AW.
The Wake actually started as a Fate game, and you can see a draft of the rules for that version here:
Redesigning the Wake
If we were to strip everything away from the idea of "a PBTA game", from our preconceptions about the individual elements like playbooks and XP and dice, and start fresh, building up from Vincent's onion, what would that look like?
- There's a conversation about how a group of characters survive in a world where dreams can become real.
- There's questions about why we, the players, are playing, and what our characters ought to be doing. The draft document partially answers that: because dreams are wondrous and terrifying and strange, yet they reflect some deep truths about humanity, and the game lets us confront those things.
- Characters' mundane abilities are relatively fixed, but their supernatural capabilities - things like familiar fusion and dream drops - are variable and subject to change.
The Agile Principles give us "Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential". Similarly, Vincent's article classifies things like "there's a GM" as an "accident" of the system. This means we can bring things in from other systems, but we ought do so when they're appropriate.
So what can we say we might need, based on what we know about the conversation that's likely to happen while playing this game?
- The rules of the world are actually fixed (e.g. how the dream and the real intersect and interact), but the contents of the world are deeply mutable.
- The subject matter deserves the broadest possible pool of imagination, meaning all players ought to have some kind of input on just what dreams spring up around the characters as a whole.
- The threats of the world are tangible, if sometimes bizarre, and ought to have dramatic weight on the proceedings.
This suggests to me that a GM-less design is probably appropriate. We want some kind of randomizer, so adopting the 2d6 convention (or another dice system) feels appropriate. Beyond that, looking at the six AW systems, we know we want: Threats, Harm & Healing, and Gear & Crap. We're not sure yet what we're doing about Moves, Playbooks, and Improvement.
Characters can come from a number of backgrounds. Their experiences, skills, attitudes, and so on are stable. Their supernatural abilities, like familiar fusion and dream drops, function dramatically more like equipment, things to be gained or lost as the action happens. So we can eliminate designs that build characters around a particular power set. What does that leave us, as an axis around which to center characters?
- Emotional journey. The characters' motivation, drives, or desires.
- Background. Where the character came from and how that shapes them.
- Role. How the character contributes to the group's success as a whole.
Following the Agile Principle "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery...", we'd do the next leg of our design by coming up with sample characters, either freeform, or via an existing rule set like Fate, and identifying what kinds of PCs the system inspires in people. At that point we could make a more solid decision.
Threats, Conflicts and Moves
The Wake can be a dangerous world. But much of its danger is the uncertainty or variability of it. Rather than just assigning HP to monsters, we can say this: "surviving or winning an encounter in the Wake often depends on knowing the rules in play for a given adversary". If the PCs are fighting a giant animated teddy bear, knowing the emotions and background of that teddy bear's creation might give them an edge, rather than choosing the right type of weapon (for example).
For more personal or social conflicts, the rules are more humanly recognizable but often still as mysterious or arbitrary. What does the village chieftain really want? What secrets are the Roc Riders concealing? Who is the secretive master of Sensail and why are they trying to hunt the party?
In this case, we can say that our threat system revolves around:
- Identifying threats as such
- Identifying the rules or weaknesses of threats
- Finding ways to exploit or overcome those things
- Surviving the encounter long enough to enact the plan
In this case, we can build our conflict system by taking inspiration from mystery-solving and social rules in other games, or modeling conflict as a puzzle to be solved.
To go further, it feels like the steps are:
- Get a group of people together for face-to-face (or close online) collaboration
- Present the setting and see what sort of characters are produced
- Start with a 2d6 die roll, 10+ is good, 7-9 is tricky, 6- is bad approach
- Play through a series of interactions and conflicts where the focus is "solve the mystery" and "apply the correct solution"
- Take feedback on what worked, what didn't work, and what gaps we naturally felt
This last point is important. Vincent's article describes the real-world elements of the game (dice, rules, etc.) as the propulsive force behind the fiction. So the question we're trying to answer there are "at what point did the fiction feel laggy or uninteresting, and what rule support could we offer - if any - to brace up moments like that?"
So while I don't know if any of this will happen, this is how I'd go about it.