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What about traits that emerge during play between characters? What about traits that describe a group of characters, like an adventuring party or a superhero team?

I’m thinking out loud about this because of something Sage LaTorra wrote about yesterday on Twitter. While discussing the place that group traits might have (or might not have) in Dungeon World, the dungeon-delving RPG he designed with Adam Koebel, he wrote: “[A] party sheet feels prescriptive, not descriptive.” [via]

I don’t agree. I don’t think a party trait is necessarily more prescriptive than an individual character trait. Dungeon World‘s “moves” are somewhat prescriptive as it is (they say, in part, “you can act on the game world in the following ways”) and that doesn’t seem to stand in the way of emergent play. Both Dungeon World and its applauded ancestor, Apocalypse World, use move mechanics to manage and systematize player inputs, yet the interaction of moves and their described outcomes can generate unexpected and provocative emergent fiction. This is true even though these games’ parts don’t interact on the order of, say, D&D 3 or D&D 4, with their hundreds of colliding feats and interacting powers. In Dungeon World, if your character has high Strength, she’s going to be good at the Hack and Slash move unless the vagaries of the dice say otherwise.

I thought Sage was talking about emergent play and it turns out I was right. While I was writing this post, Sage updated his position on party traits, writing, “teamwork and group-ness are emergent properties of working together.” [via] He continued: “So making a group a mechanical thing is denying that fun emergence in favor of codifying.” [via]

He’s talking about what I write about below, except he’s come to a different conclusion than I have.

Fiction and characterization absolutely emerge in the space between characters, I think Sage and I agree on that. Teamwork, yes, can also be an emergent property of play with a party of characters. I don’t agree, however, that teamwork is only emergent or that codification quashes emergent play. All those codified feats enable emergent play in their chaos, after all, both within a single character’s abilities and within a party.

Friends in Battle

I’m thinking, now, about two examples of teamwork in my RPGs. I tried to codify player groups a bit in the Feng Shui book, Friends of the Dragon, of course, in which teams of characters get access to schticks and abilities that change the way they fight and heal together. (Most of those schticks are foggy to me, now, and might be improved by speaking more directly to ideas we know now as the fruitful void and the social contract, but what’s done is done.)

I also think about the characters Min and Hench from a long-running D&D 3 campaign. These characters were built to fight together, designed to take advantage of battlefield modifiers and the powers of individual characters. Min was a Tiefling with the ability to conjure darkness and Hench was a blind half-orc monk who fought as well in the dark as he did in the light. Min darkened the battleground and Hench throttled the poor saps who were stuck, blind, in the zone of darkness. They developed a small retinue of tricks and tactics to keep bad guys at their mercy, riffing on their core combo of abilities like invisibility, silence, martial arts, and darkness.

(To be fair, though, Min and Hench didn’t last long—the players got bored of the schtick and moved on to other characters eventually. This probably says something about the importance of characters being individually satisfying and something about the emergent possibilities of their routine feeling exhausted. I’m not saying that emergence can’t be restrained by abilitiy selection, only that it need not be.)

Modeling Teamwork

Teamwork needn’t be solely emergent, though. It can be modeled through a savvy set of character builds, just like an expertise over magic or thievery can be. RPGs don’t have to be tactical tests of teamwork, do they?

Why do I need player skill to master a dynamic between my fighter and your thief even though neither of us needs player skill to be better at those individual roles? My skill as a combatant isn’t dependent on my knowhow as a player, so why can’t we depict an experienced working relationship between two characters with stats? Do I the fighter’s player need to develop actual secret hand signs to represent a years-old familiarity with the thief and her player? That’s fun for some players but a chore for others.

Rewarding Teamwork

Looking back at Sage’s original terminology of prescriptive versus descriptive powers, though, let’s consider the possibilities of descriptive traits that recognize emergent play—of actual game abilities that emerge and are written in response to actual play.

Emergent inter-character dynamics can maybe best be recognized by designing special content that recognizes the emergent ability in game terms. It’d be like developing a special feat that grants two characters a bonus when they fight side-by-side with the right weapons. That ability may seem prescriptive if written prior to play (because it tells the players “you’ll do better than usual if you fight this way”) but descriptive if it were written as a reward for two specific characters (because it says “we discovered or established during actual play that you two fare better when you fight this way”).

Can’t teamwork be incentivized with codified mechanics? Can’t a teamwork trait be part of the reward cycle? Imagine a D&D feat with a prerequisite that reads something like, “Defeat an Elite while staying within 3 squares of your cohort.” (Or whatever.) First you have to demonstrate actual teamwork and coordination to pull that off, then you get rewarded with a mechanical expression of your teamwork.

It’s a question, in part, of whether the players interact to exploit the game or the game rises to meet them and reward their exploits as characters.

Dungeon World is comfortable saying “the GM will describe it” (e.g., “Last Breath,” p. 26) and the GM will offer a “hard bargain” (e.g., “Defy Danger,” p. 23) so why can’t it say “the GM adds a new outcome option to this team-based move reflecting the ideas you came up with while playing,” I wonder? I mean, consider a hard bargain for the Defy Danger move that asks the player to choose which party member gets hit by the poisoned-arrow trap’s shot. That’s a hard bargain that might get systematized by a group and incorporated into a lot of Defy Danger rolls—the game can handle that kind of adaptation.

Do traits that occupy the space between multiple characters (like Bonds do for two characters at a time) inhibit emergent play? I don’t think they do. Fiasco’s characterization mechanics exist solely between characters and they serve as a starting place rather than an inhibitor—a married couple can get divorced in the first scene of actual play. Emergence doesn’t stop when things are codified. As long as players have room to riff on the fiction and describe a trait in action, emergence shall persist.

In the Dungeon World

All that said, what would be the right way to handle party-level traits or moves for Dungeon World? I don’t have a good answer yet. Mechanics might emerge for travel sequences (in which the group cooperates to journey to Death Mountain or whatever), cooperative Discerning Realities (in which the whole party shares information, but no one can keep a discernment secret from the rest of the party), or a coordinated Parley (in which the group can persuade or promise as a whole by rolling +number of cooperating allies or something). Other hooks for party play might include the highest or lowest Bond in the group, some centralized trait like Trust or Reputation (so by joining you take on the company’s rep), or even just a selection of Looks and Names to get things going.

I think it’s probably true that Dungeon World doesn’t need party mechanics—the game plays great as-is—but I think exploration is good. More importantly, I think emergent play reveals itself even when tangible landmarks like traits and moves are introduced to a fruitful void. Such things can easily be subtracted to restore a fruitful void’s true emptiness, but they may also be the markers along the path for some players.

Codification might change the place from which things emerge, but I believe emergence is too tenacious to be easily thwarted.