15/09/2015 22:38

From threats to archetypes

There exists a very interesting RPG game called "Apocalypse World", by Vincent Baker. Some people may like it, some may not, but this game is very innovative and has a lot of very useful concepts.

One of those concepts I would like to show you (and shift into something else, eventually) is the concepts of Threats. Basically speaking, everything which endangers characters or their goals is a Threat; and every Threat has a set of possible Moves (actions a Game Master can fire using this particular Threat). If the Threat is present in the game, GM can fire any of its Moves, but a GM should limit himself to those Moves only.

An example of the Apocalypse World Threat

An example of the Threat to make it more clear:

Threat: Grotesque (a human whose humanity is crippled in some way)
Subtype example 1: Mutant (craves restitution, recompense)
Subtype example 2: Cannibal (craves satiety and plenty)

- Display the contents of its heart
- Insult / affront / provoke someone
- Steal something from someone

Of course, Apocalypse World has far more Threats which have more Subtypes and definitely more Moves; if you are interested in those you may consider familiarizing yourself with that game. Those presented here are just the absolute minimum required for you to see the concept.

So, let's assume you are playing some kind of Ninja Turtles RPG and as a Game Master you have a Rocksteady as one of the actors in this world (the rhinoceros guy). The player characters are playing the reporters; not the ninja turtles. In this example Rocksteady is a Grotesque, Mutant subtype. What does it mean for a GM?

Let's assume our player character reporters entered the old warehouse to seek some evidence on... a gang stealing refrigerators.
And then a GM looks at the list of Threats prepared for this particular session (world, context...) and there is Rocksteady. And GM wants to use him. Because why not.

Ok, so why would Rocksteady even be in an old warehouse?

"Impulse: craves restitution, recompense"

So now GM knows what is Rocksteady's motivation. Restitution doesn't really work here, but recompense does. Rocksteady used to be a thug before he became a monster; probably he will try to do some kind of physical confrontation with someone. Let's say... someone from the rival gang? No, better - someone from the gang which Rocksteady used to be a part of.

(Note how character's motivations / impulses build some kind of context to this session)

Ok, so now we know Rocksteady is out to get something from his former colleague from the gang and that he does it in that warehouse. Now, what happens to the player characters? That is, why does it matter from the perspective of the player characters at all?

Let's see the Moves for a Mutant. Which move threatens something the player characters want to have or strive for?

- Display the contents of its heart: perhaps the reporters will see Rocksteady beating the gang member into a bloody pulp in a horrible display of raw strength, cruelty and brutality. How does this threaten the players' characters though? Perhaps one of them cannot stand seeing injustice and this forces them to act? Perhaps they planned to work with Rocksteady in the future and this shakes their resolve? Maybe that gang member is a key witness for the players' characters and they kind of need him alive (thus they need to intervene)?

- Provoke someone: perhaps Rocksteady shall provoke the gang member into attacking the reporters, sitting and laughing at their plight, being like a Caesar watching the gladiators? Or perhaps Rocksteady will decide to spare everyone's lives if the reporters help him get some recompense on people who set him up and made him become a mutant (for example, a short YouTube clip "Shredder wears dirty socks with holes")?

- Steal something: perhaps Rocksteady will simply attempt to take all possessions of the reporters and let them go, laughing? The reporters will have nothing and will have to explain themselves to the boss while Rocksteady will make a show of his strength and dominate. Yes, he may be a mutant, but he is stronger and acts as if he was "better" than he used to, even if he wishes he was human again... In a way by not killing everyone, Rocksteady clings to his humanity and he still has hope he will return to human form one day.

Note that the RPG session - the reality, the story - unfolds itself in our eyes. Whichever choice was made by a GM will push the story in different direction, and whichever choice the players make will also change the reality. The story is emergent. And now imagine you have many threats and you can choose ANY single one of them.

So what does a Threat really do?

To sum up, Threats show the GM the adversaries' motivations and a list of possible actions an adversary can perform. In effect, it kind of streamlines the complexity of GM's decision making into something like a very simple boardgame.

As a GM let me tell you - it is awesome. It keeps consistency (Rocksteady will not act out of his character), it gives GM's toys some kind of purpose and it makes it impossible for a story to really stall and grind to a halt combined with other tools introduced in Apocalypse World.

A Threat can be a person, a pack of people, landscape... any tool a GM can use.

Why Threats do not work for us?

As amazing as Threats are, Apocalypse World is a very specific system with Threats tightly interwoven within the fiction and the overall apocalyptica of the world.

Because of how we use our RPG system, Threats are not very useful to us as they stand:

- There are 5 types of Threats, from which only 2 of them apply to alive, sentient characters. Even with subtypes most of our characters would belong to Warlord or Grotesque Threat families, which means that characters would be very homogenous.
- Even with about 6-8 subtypes per Threat the types of character motivations are simply not suitable to our system. We have a wider array of more specific "Threats"; distinct subtypes without supertypes, so to say.
- Threats are directly connected to Fronts (another amazing tool); we can't really use Fronts because of achronological gameplay and the vast campaign.
- Threats are a superset of every possible tools of a GM; we need to categorize a lot of NPCs and focus on them first, then carry on.
- Threats are a tool which seem to be designed for a different purpose to we want to use them. From our understanding, Threats are designed to explain which role does a Threat fulfill in the world in relation to player characters, while we want to use our version of threats to explain the motivation and drive behind NPCs, not necessarily in relation to player characters.

Yet we would like to have some advantages Threats deliver:

- Our RPG sessions are emergent; something like GM introducing Rocksteady. Threats with Moves created emergent sessions (noone knows what the story will be, the result of the session is unknown even to the GM) and this is something we want to have.
- We have [u]over 300 named NPCs[/u] in our campaign; Threats and Moves would categorize them for us and streamline the session preparation. We test drived the Threats/Fronts approach and it worked; it simply did not work as well as it could.
- Our NPCs have their own dreams and purpose; Moves give GM a way to keep their consistency and help GM remember about some obscure NPCs. This also means the sessions will in general "create themselves".

Concept shift - from Threats to Archetypes

An Archetype is structured similar to the Threat, but is narrower and does not have a subtype (nor supertype).
Let me present you some archetypes as examples:

- Artist: impulse: admire. Example: Grand Admiral Thrawn from Star Wars
- Paladin: impulse: make things right. Example: Jim Raynor from Starcraft
- Scientist: impulse: understand / discover. Example: Dexter from the "Dexter's Lab" cartoons
- Sentinel: impulse: protect. Example: Matafleur from Dragonlance.

Every archetype has Moves (between 5 and 8) connected with it, exactly how Threats work.

So, high level Archetype looks like this:

- impulse:
- moves:
--- 1
--- 2

How to use Archetypes to build characters

Tamara is a terminus - a mage hunting other mages. Her Archetype is a Sentinel. She protects her family.
Tamara's family is not magical which puts them in a lot of danger in the world Tamara lives in. Against the orders of her superiors, Tamara hid her family in her own mansion and pretends they are her servants to the high society of mages. She acts cold towards normal humans, but tries to help them - as long as noone sees it. Her nature is also to protect her friends and the weaker members of her guild, therefore she created a secret society to defend weaker mages from the stronger nobles of the magical world.

Estrella is a terminus - a mage hunting other mages. Her Archetype is an Artist. She admires beauty.
Estrella fights to preserve the beauty, the harmony. She doesn't really like the fighting per se, but she needs to do it in order for the world to be better. When she is off-duty, she likes to walk in the garden, using her magic to control the evolution of plants and watches the infinite harmony of bloom and decay.

Onslaught is a tactical officer. His archetype is an Artist. He admires the tactical perfection.
Onslaught, a very skilled soldier with no weak spots on his own is a commander of a small squad of troops. He obsesses over every little detail and minutae of every possible encounter, therefore his forces usually have an advantage over the opponent. However, Onslaught suffers from complete lack of adaptation - very often he called off entire operations because one completely irrelevant parameter was out of bounds and the harmony and beauty he found in dance of laser fire was off, causing him to panic.


As you can see, I have chosen two Archetypes and two similar roles to show you that neither the role nor the Archetype create a rigid, boring character. As every Archetype has moves connected to it (like with the Rocksteady example), a GM is able to swiftly insert a character into the session and the character will be an active, alive entity with goals and personality. And - a very important thing - every character will have some sort of internal consistency.

Every NPC has one (or in rare cases two or three) Archetype which is connected to the motivation / impulse of that character (compare "admire" in Tamara with "admire" in Onslaught). This means the Archetype characters always have a purpose on a RPG session and GM does not need to think "what would this character do" - it is pretty apparent, otherwise the character would simply have no Move and would not appear on the session (because its drive / impulse would not put the character in conflict with the players).

Archetypes are also useful for players. Although player characters should not follow particular Archetypes, they can help a player design the skeleton of their character. And in case a player finds an unfortunate Archetype in his character (Pawn, for example, is an unfortunate one, as it is passive by nature) there exists a dictionary for a GM and player to discuss about the possible issues with the player character's concept.



From threats to archetypes

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