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I have been working on homebrew class replacements for , and as part of this we have added "class triggers". Class triggers look like the compendium class triggers. However instead of them being fulfilled during a game to unlock further classes, players start with classes and have to explain how their character met the trigger in their backstory.

We love this system, because it helps people build their characters and share their backstories. It's often the case that you have the idea for a character because of the trigger, and that's great. Plus triggers help to give an idea of the class before they get into reading all the details. We put them at the top of the page, just below the class name.

So it's really important to us that the triggers be the best they can. In this question I wanted to ask about one of our triggers. The trigger is for the Thief and is:

When your flair for the dramatic, in an instant, ruins a heist you have been planning for months, you may take this class.

Now first let's start with what we like:

  • A lot of players have an expectation that thieves are solitary, antisocial, and sneaky. This is mostly how the Vanilla thief is. Our class goes for a different archetype of a thief. We feel this trigger establishes the Thief is a class based more on charisma than anything. The thief is probably a bit brash, probably enjoys showing off, and certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
  • The answers to this question often lead into other interesting questions. Since the player character failed their heist, what happened next? In play-testing we've had players go to prison, and escape or learn new skills and make connections, we've had players who are on the run from the law because of the failed heist. It seems to lead to interesting characterization.

Early on we felt that this trigger was one of our strongest triggers, and we frequently used it as a model. However as we've tested it we've found one hangup.

Most other triggers involve achieving something. Usually proving their worth, or discovering new talents. This trigger explicitly involves failing. This I think can end up being a little mean, since other characters start with cool achievements while the thief starts as with a major element of their backstory being about how they failed at being a thief.

But we are still unsure. There's a good deal positive, but something just feels a little off. And we're not sure why it feels off or what that means for us.

Usually when we are unsure we go to the GM principles for advice. These guide the whole game, so when something fits well with those principles we feel it fits well with the game, and when it doesn't that can maybe explain how or why something feels off or give guidance to fixing it. Looking at the principles we felt like it might go against the GM principle:

Be a fan of the players.

The players are supposed to face adversity, but I'm not sure if demanding that they fail something is adversity. There was never any chance of them succeeding the heist. On the other hand, when this worked well the players tended to overcome the adversity but in a different way. e.g. escaping from prison.

So the question then is: Does this go against the principles of Dungeon World?

I would love to hear someone explain how exactly this breaks the principles, or how it doesn't. I feel that would help us clarify how we feel about it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How have the Thief players felt about this in play? \$\endgroup\$
    – Draconis
    Jul 23, 2023 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Draconis Well I've played thief myself with this, and I discussed this with the other people that played thief and the post is sort of a summary of how we felt. It did some good things, but it felt like it might run afoul of the principles. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 23, 2023 at 21:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would look into PBTA "love letters". The idea is that when you start a campaign, or return from a significant time jump, you write a custom move for each player that they do once, often involving telling you what they did, maybe rolling some dice, and getting some small advantage out of the roll. I kinda chafe at "you may take this class", because it's not really what's happening, it's a prompt to explain something about their backstory. The trigger isn't right. But there's nothing wrong with having a PBTA move that requires a negative trigger--see the death move when you drop to 0hp! \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaia
    Jul 25, 2023 at 20:31

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Your instincts are steering you right here.

One of the things you're running up against is a core element of your GM agenda, play to find out what happens. To see why, look at the existing game element that's the closest to this: the experience triggers that unlock the various Compendium Classes. I'm not saying that you have to enforce a class trigger to multiclass, necessarily, I'm saying -- if you did, what kind of play experience would that have been?

The planning by itself isn't the issue, that can happen offscreen whenever you'd like. It's the scene right after, where your prospective Thief does something dramatic and must ruin the entire heist. Regardless of how dramatic it was, where they do it, or who else they're doing the heist with. You wouldn't force-frame a scene like that - you'd offer the opportunity to dramatically break cover and play things out from there. Maybe some daring improvisation salvages the plan, or at least gets most people out safely.

If you wanted to write that as an experience trigger, it'd go something like:

When you endanger a careful, elaborately planned heist for the sake of one dramatic moment, you may take this class.

This leaves it up to the player how things concluded.

The second thing you may or may not be running up against is a principle - begin and end with the fiction. If your Thief is anything like the standard playbook, well, a Thief doesn't fight fair (backstab, poisoner), is cagey and wary (trap expert, flexible morals) and prefers to avoid danger and suspicion (tricks of the trade).

Somehow they acquire this all as a result of being too into drama and blowing a plan as a result?

I realize there are some advanced Thief moves that do paint the Thief as more of a charismatic kingpin, like Connections and Wealth and Taste, but those are optional advanced moves, not starting moves. If you're familiar with the third-party Dashing Hero class, whose starting moves involve performing showy acrobatics and coming up with daring plans, that's maybe somebody who better fits that fiction?

Of course, your Thief playbook may have a different set of starting moves entirely, but all the same you should look at them with this eye - how does the class trigger inform the starting moves that all members of the class share?

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(A) I do not think this contradicts the GM principles, but also (B) I am not convinced that you should care whether it does anyway.

The full principle states:

Be a fan of the characters Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.

The point of this principle, in my opinion, is to emphasize that the PCs are the stars of the story, and the GM should be interested in seeing what happens to those characters, not in fitting them into a story the GM wants to tell.

Being a fan does not mean that the characters need to always succeed. If it did, what would be the point of presenting challenges to them?

But in any case, the GM principles are guides for how to make decisions during play:

Your principles are your guides. Often, when it’s time to make a move, you’ll already have an idea of what makes sense. Consider it in light of your principles and go with it, if it fits.

That has nothing to do with how to define character backstory.

If you and the other players enjoy this as a backstory prompt, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. I can see some players not liking it as a prompt. If you wanted to make your triggers more generally accessible, I think it would be good to create 2 or 3 for each class that a player can choose from. But if you're just using them in your group, and you all like them, why bother?

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Yes, as it pushes the character in a particular direction

Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.

Notably from your descriptions, the interesting play didn't actually come from the heist, it came from what happened after.

In play-testing we've had players go to prison, and escape or learn new skills and make connections, we've had players who are on the run from the law because of the failed heist. It seems to lead to interesting characterization.

It pushes the player away from the fantastical towards a failure that's less interesting. They did nothing interesting on the heist, they just failed due to a personality trait and the fun content came from what happened next.

Magic, strange vistas, gods, demons, and abominations: the world is full of mystery and magic. Embrace that in your prep and in play. Think about “the fantastic” on various scales. Think about floating cities or islands crafted from the corpse of a god. Think about village wise-men and their spirit familiars or the statue that the local bandits touch to give them luck. The characters are interesting people, empowered by their gods, their skill at arms, or by mystical training. The world should be just as engaging.

I'd suggest tweaking it as such.

When your flair for the dramatic, in an instant, ruins a heist you have been planning for months in favour of some secondary goal, you may take this class.

That way you have the same dramatic consequences, and the thief has done something that may well be fantastical on the heist- they freed some slaves rather than a gem, they stole a mystical artifact that shouldn't be stolen, they chose to seduce an inquisitor rather than fleeing with scrolls of magic. The action was successful according to their internal dramatic logic, and they also pay a heavy price.

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This isn't a move/trigger — use the right tool for the job

Consider this game-mechanical object in play:

When your flair for the dramatic ruins a heist…

As a trigger, this is giving you something to watch out for. You build up this situation in play, like "oh hey we should go steal that thing," and then in the moment your plan goes awry and you're like "Hey! My move triggered!"

In that moment when you hit the trigger in play, you already know:

  • Who is doing the heist (including their relationships to each other)
  • Why we are doing the heist
  • What the stakes are
  • What kind of badness might befall us if we fail
  • What kinds of preparation we did for the heist (that failed)
  • Just generally lots of details about what has happened on this heist so far, various choices we made and how they affected the characters, &c., &c.

You know all this stuff because we're playing the game — to "find out what happens" — and building out this story together.

(I'm not saying it's the world's greatest trigger for a move, but it's workable. It's fine, it's fine, whatever.)

Okay, now. Consider the same game-mechanical object in pre-play:

When your flair for the dramatic ruins a heist…

There is no heist happening in front of you! Just a playbook to fill in, and hopefully some friends who are helping you a little bit.

You have to make up a whole heist, just to fail it. Who? What? Where? Why? What was the fallout? How did it affect your relationships? How can I make this old thing your character did relevant next week in play? Okay, fine, that's just how writing some backstory works. But you want to actually ask those questions (the ones that are "juicy" to you, at least), in order to have something you can work with, something that's not the inert never-gonna-matter-even-to-me style of backstory that haunts a lot of people's gaming tables.

This is why the playbooks have all these little things in them that aren't moves. Starting with simple backstory-establishing elements like "Bonds" in Dungeon World (analogous to "Hx" in Apocalypse World), but possibly moving on to bigger bespoke stuff like the Maestro D's "establishment" in AW — like half a page devoted to what the establishment is, which characters are involved in it, what sorts of connections you have because of it, what's interesting or unstable about it.

And, honestly? You probably don't want to know every little thing about the dang backstory heist right now. But if it's going to matter you're going to want some hook, some relevant detail, some reason to think about this thing that's more interesting to the people on the table than simply nodding along like "yeah sure I did that thing in the past just like it says on the sheet" as the price of admission to playing a Thief.

Something more like this, for example:

  • Who caught you stealing? Did they punish you or look the other way?
  • Who still bears a grudge over a job gone wrong?
  • Who ended up taking the punishment when you failed to cover your tracks?

That sort of thing. They have different structure than moves because it's not about cause and effect propelling the story along, it's about building up elements of character and situation that our other tools — like our game's moves or central principles — will animate into action for us later.

A pointed question or two is probably sufficient.

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Change one word

When your flair for the dramatic, in an instant, transforms a heist you have been planning for months, you may take this class.

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