Personal principles for story gaming

Plenty of games will tell you what you need to do as a GM, but one thing Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World does really well, is codify those tasks into your agenda and your principles.

Apocalypse World says this about your agenda:

Everything you say, you should do it to accomplish [your agenda], and no other.

Your agenda is a set of a few (in this case, three) things that direct your play. The agenda in Apocalypse World is:

  • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
  • Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.
  • Play to find out what happens.

Under this, you have a set of principles, whose purpose is to direct play at that mid-level. The book says:

Whenever someone turns and looks to you to say something, always say what the principles demand.

Your principles are a set of broad play techniques and patterns that you can use to make the game run a certain way, in pursuit of the agenda. For example, one of your principles is ask provocative questions and build on the answers. Which will obviously make the world seem real, and also is part of that whole playing-to-find-out thing we’re all interested in these days.

Now this is a pretty cool tool: it means you can tell the GM what they should be doing at a high level (the agenda), and then tie that to mid- to low-level actions they should take to ensure that the game flows in that direction (the principles)1. You can see its influence in a lot of modern story-games - see for example Blades in the Dark and its derivatives, which take a lot of that guidance even as they diverge from move-based play.

Our latest game of Fall of Magic has gotten quite intense. Every previous session of Fall of Magic has wrapped up in two sessions, but this one is proceeding at a snail’s pace. We’re getting through about one location every session, and we’re having a blast. Our group will quite happily spend fifteen minutes focussed on a statue in the town square in Barleytown, or on the history of a grove somewhere in Mistwood. It means we’re wandering through an incredibly rich world, and each player has their own way of making sure they hit the thematic keys they want each session.

Early on, I decided that I should build a set of principles for play, mimicking Apocalypse World. I ended up building up three sets: one set for me as a player, one set for my character, and one set for me as I help build the world.

I didn’t build these principles based on any agenda: I just thought about the behaviours that would encourage the sort of play I hoped to see, and wrote them down. But I could easily imagine either building that agenda first and using that to guide my principles, or alternatively, extracting my agenda from those principles, making concrete what is otherwise sitting hidden in the text.

It’s a useful tool. From time to time, I’ll feel myself wondering how I can contribute to a scene, and the principles will act as a bit of an anchor. They remind me who I am, and how I can help.

  1. Apocalypse World, and its Powered-by-the-Apocalypse spawn, go even lower by creating GM moves, which embody the principles at their lowest levels. But even without those moves, the principles give the GM a lot of moment-to-moment guidance.