A Dirtier World

During 2008 I ran A Dirty World, and it was far from satisfactory. I must take a lot of the responsibility, for messing up a lot of GM-101, but I think the system did not really deliver on its promise – it was confusing, arbitrary, and did not foster much of any of the desirable intra-party conflict.

So I’ve been pondering “is this system workable” – can it be fixed so that it more closely emulates what I want from the game? I have come up with a list of suggestions – house rules I guess. I hope some or all of these may improve how the game plays:

1. ORE d6

A major problem was the infrequency of sets for the group. Most people had dice pools of 4/5 – getting a significant set with 4D10 is tough. That was quite frustrating, because it made almost every action inconclusive – the characters were bumbling idiots, and rather than cutting each other, they aimlessly flailed in the social combat.

Changing to D6 increases the number of successes on average irrespective of die pool size. For a set of 2 dice it increases the odds from 10% to 16%, and it only gets better with more dice. For 3d it increases the chances of at least a pair from 27% to 44%… and so on. It means that dice rolls are actually indicative of something.

2. “Tensions” – the conflict halfway house

As written, the game is an incremental conflict resolution system alternating with a task system, but it’s often written as if it’s a conflict engine. It is not.

I think that you need to completely ditch the task engine part – assume anyone succeeds at anything unless actually opposed by another invested character. Once another character is involved, it becomes a lot clearer how to use the dice: the descriptions become relevant again.

You then need to break up your “conflicts” into something smaller – the conflict sub-particle “tension”. The outcome is always by consensus based on the balance of the tensions. There are no cut and dried narration rights – only the willingness or not to engage with the other to shift tension.

3. Exchange Values

The game engine is written with the intent that characters pick up a lot of quality dots from doing stuff. But in practice, most of the things are very difficult to improve. Take “Purity”: it is improved by “Righting a wrong at cost, without duress”. Hard – you need to really engineer situations for this to happen. Compared to Wrath’s “Torment the Helpless”. It’s easy to get angry, it’s hard to get pure – and perhaps that’s a feature rather than a bug to an extent. But Deceit is improved when you “Have your faith betrayed”. Almost impossible.

So that sub-system needs to get ditched.

Instead, I think that when you manage to overwhelm your opponent in a contest, their “lost” dot should be transferred to your winning skill. That makes it possible to improve at whatever your character does best – and it gives you a real reason to pick on others’ weakness. You hammer their purity? It could do wonders for your Selfishness.

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5 Responses to A Dirtier World

  1. #1 is one of my major disatisfactions with Godlike. Another is that in many cases there seems to be no middle ground. A character either sucks or never fails. An arm is either scratched or blown off. I thought it might work for a noir game where there should be a certain amount of failure, but I hadn’t considered PvP actions between two characters who both suck. That can get tedious.

    I think #2 is covered by the rules. “Rolls are only required when it’s dramatic and engaging for the outcome to be in doubt” (p16). That said, I’m intrigued by what you mean by tensions. Do you propose to have every “conflict” resolved by a certain number of rolls, called “tensions”? This seems reminiscent of In A Wicked Age, in which there are three rounds in every conflict; either player can back out at any time (IIRC) and concede the conflict, and the winner of each round takes an advantage into the next.

    But Deceit is improved when you “Have your faith betrayed”. Almost impossible.

    If I wanted to improve deceit, I would simply place faith in a few NPCs. I’m sure I would quickly be betrayed! However, that doesn’t address the real issue, that any condition phrased passively is going to be difficult to improve if the requisite active parties are uncooperative or oblivious.

    One dodge would be if the players explicitly requested scenes where a certain action was likely to befall them. Depending on how comfortable the group is with such things, this could be on the fly, right before the scene in question (“Player: Hey I want to be betrayed. GM: Okay, I have a scene for that.”) or it could be on a session by session basis (“Player: this week I’d like to be betrayed.”) or it could be some other permutation.

    Another solution could be to change the passive triggers for Instant Raises to active triggers.

    I haven’t played A Dirty World yet, so I’m not sure how often the current rules come up in the game and how often your proposed change would come up.

    • mashugenah says:

      I think #2 is covered by the rules.

      Think of it as a branching fork – the GM decides “hey, both success and failure are okay for the story – let’s dice for it” and then you realise that due to the utter incompetence of characters in the system, a dice roll pretty much automatically means failure. So as a GM you’re left actually just deciding by fiat whether the character succeeds or fails – by your decision to make them use or not use the dice.

      That said, I’m intrigued by what you mean by tensions.

      Well, looking at the example “conflict” in the book: Gene wants to sleep with Madge (cause her name is sooo sexy).

      In PTA, that’s a single die roll, and the winner narrates the seduction. In ADW, the example drags on over 3 sets of rolls, none of which cleanly dictates an outcome – it changes the balance of opinion.

      Like a 4e skill challenge I suppose. 🙂

      Anyway – there’s clearly a conflict, but there’s not clearly a conflict resolution. In fact, the game goes so far as to say that Gene can’t force Madge to sleep with him using the system – he can just punish her for not going along with his wishes. – And fundamentally once one side gets the other hand, the slides can almost never reverse in direction!

      What that means is that if you start to think in terms of “conflicts” the way we’ve been taught of late by Forge theory, then you are going to find almost all the action inconclusive and vague. Which comes across in all Stolze’s examples: 3/4/5 dice rolls with no clear outcome.

      So you have to think in terms of the dice as guiding narration – pushing and pulling tension around.

      This makes it a murky business at best – but that’s how it is in noir. Interrogations often result in elliptical information, and inconclusive exchanges.

      However, that doesn’t address the real issue, that any condition phrased passively is going to be difficult to improve if the requisite active parties are uncooperative or oblivious.

      I think your solution is probably along the lines Stolze intended, but it’s not directly stated, and it’s the sort of thing I can easily see being mis-handled unless everyone at the table is clear what’s going on.

      One dodge would be if the players explicitly requested scenes where a certain action was likely to befall them.

      I think this is a general solution to the general problem – but it is just as immersion-breaking in ADW as it would be in D&D. It’s a definite patch/fix not intended by the system and implicitly excluded by the assumption of an authorial GM figure.

      Plus… I think my solution creates a reason for people to enter the kind of murky intra-party conflict that the game calls for, whereas I think the “swift justice” mechanism does not.

      • Like a 4e skill challenge I suppose. 🙂

        Except inconclusive and without a systemic end point.

        So you have to think in terms of the dice as guiding narration – pushing and pulling tension around.

        Is that not how it works as written? I’m not sure what your proposed house rule is.

        I think this is a general solution to the general problem – but it is just as immersion-breaking in ADW as it would be in D&D. It’s a definite patch/fix not intended by the system and implicitly excluded by the assumption of an authorial GM figure.

        I don’t remember it being explicitly mentioned in the system, so either it wasn’t intended or it was poorly written. I don’t agree that the assumption of an authorial GM figures implicitly excludes players requesting specific scenes or the general direction of the game/session.

        Our respective positions on what is immersion breaking differ, but since my solution is immersion breaking for you, it’s clearly not a good solution here.

      • mashugenah says:

        Is that not how it works as written? I’m not sure what your proposed house rule is.

        It’s not really a rule, but an explanation. ADW isn’t a clean “conflict” engine, but nor is it really a “physics” engine – you need a third way of thinking about it.

        I don’t agree that the assumption of an authorial GM figures implicitly excludes players requesting specific scenes or the general direction of the game/session.

        What I’m saying is that there is no explicit provision in the game for player-authored bits, the way there is via a whole range of mechanisms in other systems.

        For example, in Buffy, you have “drama points” that can explicitly be used for a “plot twist” – giving a game-endorsed way for the PC to interject scenes/things of use.

        In TORG there are “coincidence” cards essentially, which the PC can play to say “despite any odds, I happen to have X plot feature handy”.

        In Adventure! there is “Dramatic Editing”, allowing PCs to spend points to explicitly over-ride a GM narration.

        ADW provides nothing even remotely similar to any of these things to give the player any narration rights

      • …a third way of thinking about it.

        Oh yeah, I see what you’re saying

        ADW provides nothing even remotely similar to any of these things to give the player any narration rights

        That’s true.
        I don’t think the absence of a mechanical system for player authority “implicitly excludes” the players from voicing opinions and preferences in the metagame space though. In my experience players do this all the time, even if they don’t do it to get specific scenes (“This magic item would be great for my character”, “We haven’t fought a dragon for a while”).

        (I have a busy couple of days; I hope to get to the wave in Wednesday).

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