About halfway through my last Society of Dreamers game, we found ourselves derailed: one of our characters (mine, for what it’s worth) was plucked from 19th-century Vienna and stranded in the Land of the Dead, and the rest of the party had to spelunk the world beyond to find her. As a group, we decided that we wanted this hunt to be far greater than just one or two scenes handled within the framework of Society of Dreamers. In fact, this little venture felt far different in tone from the campaign as a whole. So I decided to make a little minigame for the group, using Avery Alder’s Dream Askew as a base.
Dream Askew is a game about queer and marginalised folks on the outskirts of a crumbling society. While it takes a lot of its DNA from Powered by the Apocalypse games, it also introduces excellent mechanics for both GMless and diceless play. It’s rules-light, but unlike Society of Dreamers, its rules focus on character interaction, niche protection, and overcoming conflict rather than scene framing. For a story about three friends thrown together on a strange and perilous quest, it was perfect.
The nuts and bolts
To my eyes, the central part of Dream Askew’s mechanics, is its token economy. A token is a measure of narrative power: each character in the game has a number of strong moves with which they can become the central figure in a scene, but each of these moves costs a token to perform. Tokens are normally earned either by performing weak moves (often showing your flaws or opening yourself up to failure or cost), or by building strong connections between your character and someone else’s character1.
I think of these moves as guaranteed fictional outcomes. Your set of possible reactions to any given situation is never limited to that set of moves listed on your sheet, but by picking from the list of moves available to you, you’re being backed up by the rules. These moves are also a great indicator of who your character is, and what they do when faces with dangerous situations and split-second decisions. The token economy completely replaces the dice mechanic of most Powered by the Apolcaypse games.
The second part of Dream Askew’s mechanics that interests me is the allocation of the GM role. In most GMed games, the GM acts as a source of adversity or opposition for the party, providing problems for the other characters to overcome. It’s always interesting to see how GMless games get around this without violating the Czege principle: “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun”.
Dream Askew gets around this by splitting adversity into many setting elements, which mimic the traditional fronts and threats of Powered by the Apocalypse games: one player may play the bands of roving gangs hanging out in the wilderness, for example, while someone else plays the varied scarcities that plague your town. By ensuring that the people playing each setting element are also playing the character least well-equipped to deal with it, we can try to keep the cause and solution of each problem separate.
Each setting element in Dream Askew is far more than just a name: it also includes a drive (some underlying thing to push towards or hint at in play) and a series of moves (as with the characters’ moves, a series of general actions by which your element may act in the world).
There’s a lot more to Dream Askew than is described here: if you like the sound of it, I recommend you buy it and check it out. Hopefully, however, the above explanation of basic rules is enough for you to understand how I took these mechanics and hacked them into a tiny, rules-light one-off.
Hacking something new
Dream Askew is a character-focussed game. Aside from the very basic rules, most of the mechanical complexity is coded into the character sheets. That means that, assuming you’re not altering the basic rules, a hack of the game is naturally going to be focussed on the characters.
Building the characters
I knew that my hack would have to accommodate three characters:
- Wren, an accomplished if absent-minded magician of means.
- Nadja, a Romani ne'er-do-well with a knack for spirit magic.
- Aoife, Wren’s housemaid and part-time ghost hunter.
The three of them were strong and well-developed personalities. For each of them, I built their character sheet by selecting for them:
- A set of wardrobe styles, based on how they’d dressed previously
- Various equipment that they might have brought with them
- A lure, a way in which other characters may gain tokens by interacting with this character
- Four or five each of strong, regular and weak moves, which show us how each character deals with adversity
- (Optional) a bird meme, stolen from our group chat2
For example, our previous scenes with Nadja had characterised her as suspicious and world-weary, with one eye on the door and another on the valuables. We knew that she’d travelled far from her homeland, and was used to life on the road. Nadja’s look (skirt and boots, leather and cloth, street wear, a signature colour, countless pockets, etc.) reflected her circumstances, while her lure (“Whenever someone gives you an opportunity to strike from behind, they gain a token”) and her moves (“Draw a weapon before anyone can act”, “Bolt for the exit”, “Deflect harm onto an ally”) reflect her aptitude for skulking, as well as her selfishness.
Aoife, however, had shown a knack for both practicality and brute force, although she found it hard to connect with the rest of the group. Her look (maid’s wear, old-fashioned wear, sensible boots, a good knife, etc.) reflected both her role in society and her tendency to always be prepared, while her moves reflected both this attitude (“Bring out supplies no one knew you had”), her self-reliance (“Isolate yourself from your allies”), her familiarity with the spirit world (“Step in to negotiate with spirits”), and her brutality (“Kill someone”).
Building the world
The second part of each character sheet was an element that made up part of the setting. While we’d already established a menagerie of strange creatures to encounter in the land of the dead, I wanted to keep these creatures under my control at GM. Instead, I provided the other players with control over the landscape, the lost folk who inhabit it, and magic.
Along with a general description to get the responsible player started, each setting element had an impulse and a number of moves. The impulse is an overriding goal for the player as an advocate of their setting element, something for them to turn to when they’re deciding how to respond. For example, Magic’s impulse is inject symbolism into the world. The moves give the responsible player a number of ways to act within the fiction, to accomplish their impulse. For example, Magic’s moves are:
- Provide colour in this monochrome world
- Permeate everyday life
- Burst forth with unpredictable vigour
- Defy control and discipline
- Allow space for poetry
This isn’t to say that each setting element was limited to just these things: instead, you can think of this list as a set of ways we can empower the responsible player to act. Acting in the role of the setting - especially when you don’t explicitly have the mantle of GM to back you up - can be difficult, as you wonder whether or not you’re overstepping your bounds. These moves provide the responsible player with a number of defined, explicit ways they can break the rules.
It should be noted that I didn’t assign these setting elements at random. I tried to make sure that the people in charge of each setting element are also the people whose characters are least likely to interact with that setting element. This is a technique that Dream Askew uses heavily: the character who is best at shooting things shouldn’t be responsible for the gangs they’ll be shooting at. This is why Nadja (the least magical of the characters) is in charge of the magic setting element, and so on.
The GM in most Powered by the Apocalypse games is assisted by a series of GM-facing moves. This framework is no exception. The GM gets a list of basic GM moves (which will be familiar to any GM who’s played Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, etc.), as well as a set of factions with their own impulses and moves. Finally, I provided a series of set pieces and cool visuals to help prompt me during play.
Because this is a game in the somewhat-low-prep tradition of PbtA, I didn’t plan much of a story for my players before the session. Between my moves and set pieces, and the players’ setting elements, I figured we’d run off any planned road pretty quickly.
Notes on play
We ran with this framework for one session. We started off with a quick run-through of the rules, followed by some time for everyone to become familiar with their character sheets. There’s always five minutes where people pore over their sheets and start thinking how they’re going to use their moves. Following this, I framed our first scene, outlined our goals, and let the players at it.
From this point on, things went pretty smoothly. At the start of the session, I provided some additional guidance as GM, giving the players scene-level goals to act toward and obstacles to overcome. Once we got into the swing of things, however, my role as narrator and judge decreased, until at the end of the game all I needed to do was play any antagonists.
This may have been partly because of my players, and the game we were playing previously. Our group comprised a bunch of Larpers who were used to making up plot on their own, and coming from Society of Dreamers, we were used to thinking of the story as a shared thing.
Would this work if your group was mainly (or completely) used to more traditional, GM-full games? It’s tricky to tell. I’d like to think that the combination of a central GM figure, plus player-controlled setting elements would allow more traditional players a way of easing into the role.
Want to see the whole product? This PDF is every player sheet, plus the GM sheet, in one handy form.
Because it’s always nice to credit your sources. As with every hack, there’s probably a bunch of stuff that I’ve forgotten here, that’s influenced the design of this game in some way or other.
- Dream Askew, by Avery Alder. The core game that this hack is based on.
- Apocalypse World, by D. Vincent Baker. This game is the start of the PbtA game line, and even this far down the track, it influenced my design decisions.
- Blades in the Dark, by John Harper, for just-in-time equipment.
- Archipelago, by Matthijs Holter, for the concept of element ownership.