Monday, November 29, 2010

Reverse Anchors

I've mentioned a few times how much I like the idea of anchors as a way to concretely draw aspects into play. The idea is simple: after a player picks an aspect, they name some element of the setting (a person, place or thing) that is tied into that aspect in some way. It provides the player easy ties into the setting and it gives the GM convenient handles with which she can grip onto character's aspects. Win-win all around.

The other night I was talking with my friend Morgan about some ideas that we'd kicked around for Dresden but which has never really materialized. One of them revolved around thematic categories for aspects to fall under, and we were kicking around ways to capture that, and it occurred to me that you could really make this work by turning anchors on their head.

That is to say, you could begin a game with a limited set of anchors, and say have aspects tie into those. Exactly what those anchors would be depends entirely on the game and the genre. Amber, arguably, provides a great example of this in the form of the cast of characters (the royal family) plus a few key locations. The same thing could easily be done with the little town outside the dungeon or a city in a Dresden or cyberpunk game.

Now, there are some obvious benefits to this approach - a fixed list of anchors and an open list of aspects means you have a pre-built set of tools for building adventures, but this also taps into the same mojo as The Trick. The fixed set of anchors provide linking points for the characters through the anchor rather than directly.

One important qualifier is that the list of anchors is a snapshot, not a fixed list. The initial list should allow for some room to grow as players come up with ideas. After chargen, the list may change (slowly or quickly) over the course of the game. How it changes depends on the game - the game might be complex and call for only occasional changes or it might start with only a few anchors and expand over time.

Obviously, this calls for a little thought before character creation, but it's actually pretty light duty stuff, and it has the advantage of helping prune the field of unwelcome elements. Any potential elements that don't interest players enough to tie to their aspects probably deserve to be shuffled off to the sidelines. But with that small amount of work, you have created an easy way to keep a game's central elements in the middle of play without breaking a sweat.


  1. I'm not sure I understand. Is this using the idea of product of one's environment?

    Players read the setting, note certain things that interest them as anchors and then define their characters in relation to the anchors?

    The orcs attacked Port Humble suddenly, killing thousands of civilians. Anchor: Port Humble. Aspect: My Faith died at Port Humble. Is this the idea?

  2. @loyd So, for nromal anchors, players can either find elements in the setting they like, or just create new ones as anchors. This means they may be all over the map, but it allows for players to have a strong hand in events.

    In reverse anchors, the GM provides a list of things she thinks will be important to the game (ideally with player input). So let's say that one of the elements on that list is "Port Humble".

    So Character A may have "I Lost My Faith" as an aspect with the anchor "Port Humble" because they lost their faith in the massacre.

    Character B may have "Shady" as an aspect, and choose Port Humble as their anchor, as they grew up in the Port Humble Slums.

    Character C might have "Gambler's Luck" as an aspect an choose Port Humble as an anchor because of all the time he's spent in it's casinos.

    After that's done, two really cool things have happened.

    First, these characters are now connected in a very organic way. Because Port Humble is important to them all in some way, there are lots of routes for loose connections between the characters which can be explored at will.

    Second, we all now know more about Port Humble. It might have just been a name when we started, but now we know it had a massacre, has slums and gambling halls of note. Those may spawn secondary questions, like how the massacre impacted the other characters.

    Now, that said, Port Humble would only be a useful anchor if the city as a whole comes up in the game. If the game took place in Port Humble then it's probably too big to be an anchor, but in a world-spanning game, it would be ideal. One important thing with an anchor is that I want to be able to use it as a lever to move the aspect it's related to, which is easy to do with a building or a person, but harder with a whole city.

    Make any more sense?

    -Rob D.

  3. I think I use "anchors" in a different context, but I have a large section in Do about the use of "Anchors" in play. Also a second section on using "Sails," which are bits of the setting that are explicitly called out by the players as bits they want to change.

  4. You could also define a negative reverse anchor, like "Port Humble needs clean government" or "Port Humble's caste system forbids social advancement." Then the game inevitably gravitates toward these deficiencies and the PCs' attempts to redress them.

    At that point you'd really want to bring in the Parameters system from Ray Winninger's old Mayfair RPG "Underground." Different aspects of society had numerical ratings, and the PCs' actions could modify them toward desired ends.

  5. @Rob Yeah, an Aspect activation lever that is determined by the player's character conceptions, I get it.

    However, wouldn't the GM have an idea tied to each anchor that reasons why they're on the list and the players would have to funnel into? What if his idea was Port Humble being a religious commune? Characters B & C may have to change their Aspects or would they know the kind of port it is before linking to it? Wouldn't that match my original example?

    Haven't read here in a week so over-stimulated maybe ;)

  6. @loyd It sort of depends. The GM _might_ have a lot of detail fleshed out about the anchors, which he then shares with the players and they incorporate it, but that's more work than I'd usually be willing to do. I err towards sketching things in broad strokes then filling them in.

    That said, if I were using a published setting, I might be singing a different tune. In picking a fixed anchor list, I would effectively be saying "These are the setting elements I intend to engage", and players would already have (or have access to) the information needed to hook into those things.

    Bottom line though is that it depends a lot on how the group wants to approach it.

  7. Rob, any pointed advice on how to incorporate this concept into an already started game? I have my weekly Dresden game, a pretty full city overview sheet and some faces.

    My instinct is to pick a few of their aspects and ask them to declare an anchor based on what we've already made.

  8. @Zerogain I think that would be a good instinct, especially if your players are already familiar with the material. Odds are good that you'll get a good build with nothing more than a little discussion of that fact that you'd like to see player's link into similar anchors.

    However, if you don't want to trust in discussion, consider bribery. Tell players you'll be tracking how many shared anchors they pick, and that every player that picks a shared anchor gets an extra fate point per session for the next X sessions where X is the number of unique shared anchors they choose.

    That may be too bookkeeping-y, so a middle ground is to simply put a bowl in the middle of the table and toss a chip for every player on a shared anchor, then make that pool communally available until it's used up. This is technically exploitable, but only by weasels.

    -Rob D.


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