Some discussion on my post yesterday about Dungeon World naturally went to talking about the advancement system. One of the proposed ideas on Story-Games is to use Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday. And as I read these ideas, I hear a discordant note. This post is my attempt to talk out my own thoughts, and why I hear that false note.
Part of this comes from the Word of Vincent — saying that in Apocalypse World, highlighted stats are fashioned after Keys. People naturally read as “highlighted stats are Keys!” rather than “so, I was inspired by this idea, riffed on it, and made something new.” Thus, people are trying to shoehorn in an idea that doesn’t quite fit. To explain, let’s look at both.
What Are Keys?
Keys are an XP generating system where certain sets of actions, rather than accomplishments, get XP. They have a minor XP game, a significant XP gain, and what’s called a “buyoff”: a condition where you get a bunch of XP and ditch your Key. Clinton explains it in the TSoY open document. Let’s look at one of these keys:
Key of Glittering Gold: Your character loves wealth. Gain 1 XP every time you make a deal that favors you in wealth. Gain 2 XP every time you finish an adventure with more wealth than you started with. Gain 5 XP every time you double your wealth. Buyoff: Give away everything you own except what you can carry lightly.
So a character can get some XP when they wheel and deal, and even more XP when they seek fortune and succeed. Two paths for a Key, of two different rates, reinforces a sense that while this is a character’s agenda, it’s not just one-note.
The buyoff is interesting in TSoY, because it suggests a narrative arc. This character could go through an entire game as a greedy dude, sure, or at some pivotal moment he could snap, change, and give away everything he owns. It suggests creating a platform through play, and tilting it at a dramatic moment.
Two ways to engage the Key while keeping it, and one way to break it. Keeps the idea of Key engagement fresh rather than one-note, and gives you a reward for being done with that Key. It’s still one of the most celebrated mechanics in indieland — to where people try to fit it in where they don’t quite work.
It need not always be an action, either. In the Key of the Coward, you have:
Key of the Coward: Your character avoids combat like the plague. Gain 1 XP every time your character avoids a potentially dangerous situation. Gain 3 XP every time your character stops a combat using other means besides violence. Buyoff: Leap into combat with no hesitation.
Which pushes the idea of Keys as being “demonstrate this in the fiction” over “try this action.”
(Incidentally, Judd Karlman has a neat idea for his long-standing TSoY hack called Banners, which are a sort of Key that you place on yourself that other people do to you, like “The Banner of the Bullied Kid” where people get XP if they bully you. Hot stuff.)
What Are Highlighted Stats?
Highlighted stats are certain, chosen stats that when rolled for any reason give you XP. It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you get the XP.
Stats are highlighted by other people — the GM and another player typically, though I’ve seen random rolls. They then, ideally, push forward certain actions that other people want to see your character do.
In Apocalypse World, you generally have five classes of things to do, falling under five stats: being a Hard motherfucker with force and combat, being Cool under pressure and doing what’s needed under fire, being Hot and manipulating everyone around you, being Sharp and discovering things about the world that give you the edge you’ll need, and being Weird with the whack-ass strangeness that’s happened after the apocalypse.
So when a stat is highlighted, really a class of action is highlighted.
(There’s a bit of fiddle there were you can take options that shift one class of action to using a different stat under certain circumstances, which means you need to pay attention when highlighting stats that you’re actually highlighting the class of action you intend. Like, if my character uses Weird for manipulating people, and you highlight my crappy Hot not realizing that I don’t need to use my Hot to do that class of action, there could be a problem. On the other hand, if you know what you’re doing and you highlight my Hot, you’re saying you want to see me manipulate people and have a difficult time with it, which could also be cool. All things depending. A tangent, but I figure worth a mention.)
The Issue of Player Control
You pick your Keys. You pick when you buy off your Key. You pick the new Keys you buy.
Other people pick your highlighted stats. And they pick again after every session.
This is pretty significant. Highlighted stats are flags to people that they want you to see your character try certain things in the coming session. Keys are about you saying what your character is about. And while highlighted stats may have come from Keys, there are several steps of evolution there that makes then genetically incompatible. Homo sapiens Keyus can’t mate with Homo sapiens highlightus.
Rewarding someone the broad strokes of available actions is far different from rewarding them for more specific character actions. Telling me you want me to be Sharp this session isn’t the same as telling me you want me to make deals that favor wealth. If my goal for a given session of play doesn’t match what I’m told I need to do to be more awesome — like if I just got off work and this time just exercise some badass fighting fiction — then that session of play is going to go flat either because I play how I wanted to or be rewarded. When then highlighting action is about broad strokes as in Apocalypse World, then you get that sweet marriage between player agenda and rewarded actions.
And if the solution is to make Keys generic rather than about specific actions, well, then they aren’t really Keys, are they? People are heavily drifting the Key concept in that S-G post, and those ideas would be better served by dropping the attachment to Keys (and the potential miscommunication therein).
Why I Don’t Think Keys Fit in Dungeon World
Dungeon World is pretty slim and speedy. Would adding another subsystem on top of that like Keys weigh it down? Maybe.
And would they really be Keys if they had one path of XP gain, and lacking a buyoff? Yet, if you include a buyoff, you change the economy of advancement and need more Keys to replace that with.
On top of that, are the actions driven by Keys compatible with the ideas of Dungeon World? If the Keys are “get rewarding for doing something other than adventuring and kicking ass as a party,” you’ve got a problem. Same problem you’d have if you put Keys in D&D. In fact, I would look at “would it break D&D” as a (albeit weak) litmus test, at least with regards to advancement.
Why I Don’t Think Highlighted Stats Fit in Dungeon World
The actions in the source game, Apocalypse World, are varied. You use Sharp to discover things, Hot to manipulate people, Hard to kill motherfuckers, etc. When you have two highlights, you have two out of five broad courses of action that reward you, even if you don’t want to do one or both them.
In Dungeon World, they’re split: Int & Wis discover things. Str & Dex both kill fuckers. So, what happens when you have Int & Wis highlighted? Or Str & Dex? Then you have just one course of action that rewards you.
Then there’s the point of the game. Apocalypse World is a complex, dangerous drama. By changing someone’s highlights, you’re signaling “hey, let’s see your character go in this direction during this segment of the drama.” That’s about celebrating doing something different. Dungeon World is pretty much the same thing day in and out: kill monsters, take their stuff. That style of game is about celebrating variations on doing the same thing.
What Would Fit in Dungeon World?
I don’t know. What’s Dungeon World about? What’s the thing we should be rewarding each other for? What are the actions and events that are worth triggering character change and evolution?
Where would I start? Here’s my take: Dungeon World is about being bold.
 Which means my conclusions could be wrong, though I stand by my analysis of Keys & highlighted stats.
 File under “more terms I will never put into Google while safe search is off.” JUST IN CASE.