Sunday, 13 July 2014

Barf Forth Britannica: Principles of The 'Hood

In the last two articles about MCing The 'Hood, I covered the agenda of play and what you should always say, so this time I'm going to tackle the principles: you can play The 'Hood straight out of the principles in Apocalypse World, you just need to add that grungy, contemporary urban twist.

Barf forth Britannica
Thanks to Gregor Vuga for that phrase: to be clear, The 'Hood is not set in Britain, but I am, so that's what I wrote about, the situation I've been familiar with all my life. Throughout the text, I've made a deliberate effort to not to refer to specific locations, currencies or national figures, but ultimately my own identity bleeds through in the text and informs some of the assumptions. You can substitute any national identity and create a game with its own highly distinctive feel, as long as you commit to communicating that essential difference to the players: every major city in the world has a set of hot issues that are as unique to it as a fingerprint, so wherever your 'hood is, you have to fill the characters senses with the experience of living there. Grab a soundtrack, some authentic snacks and drinks, create a stock of photos of the places, the people and the products which define that area & culture, then barf that all forth at the table (please, not literally when it comes to the snacks & drinks.)

Address yourself to the characters, not the players
Stay in the fiction: when you've got something to say about it, communicate that information to the characters, through what they can see, hear and what they know. The characters have lived in the 'hood most of their lives, so they already know all the in & outs of it: you don't need to describe things to them as if they were fresh and new, just tell them what's what. "Look out Slick, that's Turk crossing the road coming your way with a couple of his crew; he probably wants a word with you about bringing Mint onto his patch. Maybe you should have stayed off his street today? Too late now though, here they are."
As with Never to Die, the progenitor of The 'Hood, you're playing the whole environment the PCs live in: you're not just their mates, relatives and rivals, you're also the bars, the shops, the houses, the streets and even the traffic on them. When you're MCing, you're being the 'hood in the same way that someone else is being the Fallen, the Schemer or even the Voice, so own that identity and speak through it: "The traffic is shit, like every car in the 'hood is going the opposite way to you, almost as if they know what you're planning and want to get the fuck away from it."

Make your move, but misdirect; make your move, but never speak its name.
Tell the story through the moves you make, not the mechanics that demand them: the moves are just the middle-men, allowing an easy passage from one situation to the next. Moves only happen for a reason and what they do should be told through the fiction, not as hits and misses: keep all that behind the curtain when you're narrating what happens. When you turn up the heat, it's because the story demands it, not because the dice do: there are choices open at any point, the dice just decide which path the story goes down, they aren't the reason for it going down that path. If the Mint decides not to give you a break on the money you owe him, it's because he's had trouble with some other non-payers today and he doesn't have time for your shit, not because you rolled a 4: the dice will decide what the fiction is, even retroactively.

Look through crosshairs
The PCs lives are their own, but everything else? That's all yours. Take all those NPCs and the streetplan and find ways to burn them: users, hoes and debtors are a good place to start, but everybody in the 'hood has an agenda and they aren't all going to get what they want. A good first session kicker is to take something the players have put on the map and wreck it: close it down, burn it down, demolish it and salt the earth where it stood. An even better kicker is to turn an NPC on them: have their own sister turn them into the police, let their best friend try shooting them because the PC is getting in the way of the NPC's business. Make the players deal with this shit and show them that when they give you something to play with, you'll light the fuse on it and throw it back at them.

Name everyone, make everyone seem human.
Look at the streetplan, look at who lives there, look at how they relate to the PCs, but think about what they do when the PCs aren't around. Everyone in the 'hood wants something, even if it's as simple as being left alone in peace to make it through another day, so use that when the PCs want them for their own business. It's fine to say things like "You're just rocking up to Mo in the middle of the day, while he's working at the supermarket, and asking him to hold the package for you? Yeah, he's this close to losing his shit with you and thinking about all the favours he's done for you in the past, so he's not in the mood to listen right now." If they push it, they can make trouble and if they don't blow that, then they can make the move they came to make, but don't let them assume that the NPCs are always there for them whenever they want to do something.

Ask provocative questions and build on the answers
You've been doing this since the start of the game, so keep doing it: the Debts PCs start with creates a whole history between the PCs, which is then built on via the streetplanning. Whose houses are those? Who lives there? How long have they been there for? What's nearby? What isn't? Keep asking the PCs questions about the day they're having and the history behind it:

  • "Who's that in front of you in the queue at the checkout? What was it you wanted to ask them?"
  • "Can you remember the first time you kissed Puppy? It was just after he'd broken up with his boyfriend and whose fault was that?"
  • "Your normal boozer is The Three Lions, but today you're propping up the bar in The Mermaid; even the barkeep, Hooch, seems surprised to see you and says 'What brings you in 'ere then?' There's a puzzled frown on his face as he asks."
Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards
Give the PCs what they've worked for: which isn't to say that you should always reward them, but their effort should always pay off, including the times they totally balls everything up and bring a metric fuckton of trouble down on top of themselves. When they mess up badly, remember it, then throw it back at them at the worst possible time: keep an eye on who they owe payback to and why, then hit them full in the face with both barrels. Even when they get what they wanted, they're living in the real world, so there are always strings attached and it won't last forever anyway. It's fine for things to work out in their favour once in a while, but mostly they're like the frog thrashing away in the jug of cream trying to stay afloat: maybe if they keep at it long enough, they'll be in butter, but only if they get the chance to keep kicking.

Be a fan of the players' characters
If the player's work hard at something their characters are doing, then respect that and respond enthusiastically: don't shut them down, don't cock block them and don't take away what makes them cool. The Fallen is a bent cop and they'll stay a bent cop until they go down or get burned, even if their own force starts investigating them: it's good that they come under the spotlight like this, but it's up to the player how this plays out for their character. Are they going to lose some heat? How? Maybe split their takings with a colleague who suspects them? Maybe frame someone else for what they've done? Whatever course of action they take, be a fan of that plot-line and commit to it as much as the player does: play the NPCs who get involved and portray their reaction fairly, but don't use them to just say no to it. Even if the players come up with the dumbest, least workable plan in the world, let their characters play it through and portray the outcome fairly: be supportive and enable their schemes, don't dismiss what the players are contributing.

Think offscreen too
Stuck for what to do next? Take a look at the streetplan and the cast of NPCs: what are they going to do now? The 'hood and the PCs' lives are just one tiny slice through the rich variety of life that's taking place in their town every minute, every day: remember that you're playing the 'hood as if it were a character of it's own, so make it real, make it move, make it hungry and then see what it gobbles up and spits out. Flip back and forth between big picture (the world outside the 'hood) and small picture, create a dynamic between what happens on the streets and what happens in the world at large.

Sometimes, disclaim decision making
When it's your call what happens next, don't always make the decision based on what you want to see or what you believe ought to happen next, try one of these:

  • What would an NPC do? Check through the cast of supporting characters and ask yourself how they would react to this situation; when you get an interesting answer, you've got what happens next.
  • What do the players want to happen? Just come out and ask them what they think should happen next as a result of what the characters have done: why did they just do what they did? What did they expect to get out of it? How do they think the NPCs are going to react?
  • What were the stakes? What did you say would happen in this situation? If you set stakes for a move, then honesty demands that you apply those stakes as agreed.