Calling the PbtA "moves" moves: A bad move?

A lot has been said about how Vincent’s prose in Apocalypse World is colourful and evocative. Still, at least for me and those in my social circle (as well as for a significant number of people online, see basically any “New GM” threads in the PbtA reddit), trying to wrestle how to actually play the game from the text was quite challenging.

Apart from my own intellectual limitations, I think a major reason for this is the somewhat misguided introduction of fancy new terminology. +1 Forward/Ongoing aside, I feel the game term I had the most problem with is move. Years later, I now see that there is good reason to be confused here:

First of all, the word is used to reference two mechanisms, namely player moves and GM moves, which are fundamentally irreconcilable:

  1. Not everything a player does is a move. Many games state this explicitly, usually in the context of combat: “If the enemy isn’t prepared for your attack […] then that’s not hack and slash” (DW).

  2. Everything the GM does, however, is a move. This is RAW.

To make matters worse, there’s a third problem that hits hardest the people that are not acquainted with rpgs at all:

  1. Both concepts resemble, but are ultimately very different from, the canonical notion of a move in a traditional game. In any “traditional” game (chess, checkers, boardgames, whatever), a move is one of a very specific set of actions a player can take when their turn comes up. This, I think, is partially responsible for the very common misconception that moves in PbtA games are a set of prescriptive actions the player can take at any given moment.

I feel as if this was meant to reproduce the feel of a move in chess, the back-and-forth motion of player makes a move, GM makes a move in response, player makes another move and so on.

Still, taking all of the above into consideration, I think this is far from ideal communication, which leads me to the points I’d like to discuss with all you PbtA designers out there:

  • Why have most of the PbtA games that came out afterwards reproduced this terminology? Am I missing something?

and

  • How could we iterate on these terms and concepts to make our own designs better?

(Fellowship comes to mind as a game that changed this, framing GM moves as “Reactions” and “Cuts”, which I think is much clearer).

Anyway, new to the forums and would love to hear your opinions on this.

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A good post.

I’m one of those people who find the “move” vocabulary immediately and intuitively comfortable. I never struggled with it, and I still like it.

However, the discrepancy between player moves and MC moves you point is very real.

I’ve seen games address this in different ways. There’s the “players -> moves” and “MC -> Reactions” vocabulary, for example. I’ve seen one game call what the MC does “moves” and the written player-facing moves are “rules”, instead, which also makes a ton of sense. I know that one of the Bakers’ upcoming games calls players’ moves “obvious plays”, instead.

Personally, I really like the “move” vocabulary, and I’m hesitant to drop it (all the alternatives sound much clumsier to me). However, I agree that it can be confusing. As an alternative to renaming, what would you think of simply explaining this upfront in the text? (e.g. “Players and MCs both make ‘moves’ in this game, but they look different…”)

It’s an interesting thing to consider, anyhow, and I’m sure the language will continue to evolve.

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I ended up pretty fond of how move sounds and feels in play - in spite of being not very useful when trying to explain the rules. After some time the conceptual issues do tend to go away as everyone slowly realizes the “moves” being referred to in the text are in fact two very different things that are just called by the same name. So I suppose a simple explanation could go a long way in solving this particular nitpick.

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Nevertheless, dissecting moves like this has been really insightful and has lead to a few design possibilities that I fancy very much.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that comes to mind is to make moves truly symmetrical between GMs and players. The thing is: the GM moves do have triggers just like the player moves, they’re just oddly non-diegetic and entirely meta (when someone messes up a roll, when everyone looks at you, etc). By allowing GMs to do stuff outside of moves (such as having a nice freeform social interaction), we can frame GM moves just as we would the players’:

GIVE THEM HELL
When they stop still in the dungeon, even for a moment, you must remind them of the true nature of this place. Pick one:

  • Give signs of an approaching threat
  • Make them spend a resource
  • Stir inter-party conflict

This effectively pulls the GM into the fiction and out of their “impartial arbiter” position, making them basically a character. This, in turn, could have some absolutely fantastic implications in games where gods or other metaphysical beings play a large role.

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I agree that the terminology of moves works because it’s an intuitively good metaphor from gaming. But I also agree that there are problems with it if you try to dig deeper. Every poetic trope seems to have its own limits.

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IIRC, Apocalypse World was designed explicitly so that about 20% of people didn’t get it, 40% of people got it, and 40% of people got some of it, so that people would talk about it on the internet and create buzz for the game.

Vincent talks about it in this presentation (I can’t find the exact minute, and I apologize if I’ve misremembered what he said).

I’m one of the 40% that just got it, but I’ve come to dislike the opaqueness of the vocabulary over time.

There is a much bigger discussion to have that a move with an in-fiction trigger doesn’t inform you in any way on how that move is supposed to be triggered at the table. Mrs. Fiction is not a participant and doesn’t make decisions; someone is going to have to make that decision, but it’s not clear based on what, beyond ‘interpreting the fiction’. The internal coherence of the fiction is really not why we’re here sitting down trying to have fun, and there are definitely interpretations that end up with more fun than others. The average PbtA spends no time discussing this and expects you to just get it. Just follow the triggers!

For the same reason, all the current talk about “fiction-first” gaming is absolute bullcrap.

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Learning that AW was deliberately written to be opaque is actually pretty heartwarming.

I’m afraid I don’t really understand your point about fiction-first gaming, however. Most of the moves triggered in the fiction seem to translate into procedures at the table level in a pretty straightforward manner: player attacks someone, time to grab the dice and figure out what happens. Care to elaborate?

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Yeah, could you elaborate on your last sentence, @Froggy?

BTW Vincent is analyzing PbtA on his Patreon ‘right now’.

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It’s my main gripe with moves so I want to try and explicit that. Let’s say a trigger is : “when you confront someone stronger than you”. For fun’s sake pbta tables go for the obvious. Sometimes, there’s a consensus for less obvious interpretations.
Consensus schmonsensus : we’re back to authority through social games. To rephrase that : in many instances, it’s not clear who qualifies the validity of the move. If you posit that there’s no one fiction, only words and their interpretations, you can twist the move triggers. If the trigger is “when you try to open a door”, then I am trying to “open the door” of their perception, so I use drugs to locpick their mind. You know, that sort of far fetched interpretations. And cool kid is laughing : so let’s see where that goes. And call that a consensus.
When I say I have a problem with moves and I caricature surrealist interpretations, I sound acid : that’s because I am the first at the table who would push moves there. And they don’t resist that much.
Or maybe you mean something else @Froggy !
@Deodatus : every language has its own limits they are both tools and obstacles.

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I just watched Vincent’s video through. He does comment on an audience question that difficult texts can aid retention, but doesn’t say he did that himself.

One of the many interesting things about AW to me is that the game text steps you through the entire game process, as a GM. There are literal rules for creating a situation, starting the first session, every step of GMing the game, the flow of GM/player conversations, how to end a session and even what to do between sessions. It’s a short game book, but it’s the most complete I’ve ever seen in this sense.

AW does use novel terminology, which I can see could be disorienting for people familiar with other RPGs, but this is useful because it flags that this is different. It avoids the trap of implying that these systems are supposed to work the same as in other games. We’re used to building on a lot of concepts from other games when learning a new one, but if you try to interpret AW by mapping across concepts from games you’ve played before you can easily go astray. There’s also a lot of technical language, and being short and concise makes it a dense read.

A few times on RPGNet I’ve ended up in conversations with people who had trouble playing AW, and each time it’s because they didn’t play it as the game text describes. They tried to play it like a regular RPG just using moves. Now I think it’s possible to design a game that works that way. You could reimplement say D&D using a move structure for the mechanics, sure, but that’s not how AW or Dungeon World are designed to be played and the actual moves those games have don’t support such play very well.

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Hmm, interesting take.

If your point is that moves are problematic because they’re easily exploitable, I disagree. I see rpgs as fundamentally high-trust games - aside perhaps from 600-page rulebooks filled with strict definitions, there’s really nothing stopping you from stretching the definition of any of the game terms to whatever extent you want. This, I feel, applies to pbta games just as it does to DnD.

There is a valid point to be made here, however: I think it is problematic that we frequently have to exploit moves to move the game forward, because the author didn’t think whatever the table wants to do is “thematically appropriate”. Is kicking down a door “Acting under pressure”? Who knows? Still, it’s either that or relying completely on the social contract (the GM decides by making a move), which, as you said, is pretty bonkers.

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My point here is absolutely not to bash on AW’s design or anything of the sort. I wholeheartedly agree that giving the GM explicit procedures and guidance instead of going “oh you know how to do this already” was a very strong point of the game.

Still, there is undeniably an above-average amount of confusion surrounding PbtA and I’d be hard pressed to say that it’s entirely these people’s fault for being dum-dums and not reading the book properly.

AW didn’t exist in a vacuum - i mean, we all know that it most likely wasn’t the reader’s first rpg. By not explicitly stating what differentiates it from the reader’s previous experiences (cough DnD cough) and instead writing it as a self-evident rpg, Vincent was essentially begging us to break, stretch or ignore his rules - all while being surprisingly adamant that they should be followed to the letter.

By not addressing some really basic questions which lie on the foundations of the hobby (How do I kick down a door? What do you mean I can’t just have a chill conversation with an NPC?) as if they wouldn’t naturally appear, AW inadvertedly ends up relying on the reader inserting their own background into the game so they can have the experience they think they bought - just so we can all later look down on them as DnD plebs who should’ve sticked to the text.

I think the “move” terminology is a microcosm of this: it’s cool that you want to reshape a word to mean something else, but you need to be aware of the baggage this word carries with it.

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Well, yes. What I was trying to say is something similar to what @DeReel meant.

The in-fiction trigger must be interpreted, and that interpretation is a game decision with important consequences. And game texts sweep this under the table as just “oh, do this whenever this happens in the fiction”.

First of all, who does? Most people have the GM do it, but it’s not that clear. Dungeon world Defy Danger: the GM is in charge of the danger, the player in charge of the attempt, yeah? But I’ve seen people get confused and murky about this, or GMs directly call for rolls+something.

Secondly, it sounds like all you’re doing is “interpreting the fiction”, so essentially your objective just being trying to keep the fiction self-consistent with the move usage. But this is obviously not the case: if all I cared about was interpreting fiction, I wouldn’t do it here, I wouldn’t have these other people at my table, I wouldn’t be playing a game: I can as well just read a book or something.

What if actually we’re sitting there to play something, with some sort of aesthetic goal, and rules are tools we apply to get there? And so, the average PbtA text doesn’t really get into this and how to do it, who the people are, what are their roles and authorities, how they make decisions to apply rules.

“The fiction” becomes just the glue to haphazardly tack moves onto each other, with no point to it, and a GM that is just supposed to orchestrate everything in some way so that it ends up being “good”, rather than being their own player at the game with their own agendas.

I actually think AW does a good job at teaching you what the game is about without you noticing with its text, descriptions, and the way it frames the game itself. But most derivates do not.

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Well, I don’t share your perspective on kicking down doors as a basic move. But I agree with your argument against my point. Moves in general are robust enough that they won’t break before some sort of tacit social rule.

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I can never remember where I saw this explanation, but “move” in PbtA isn’t like a move in a fighting game or something. It’s meant as in “moving” the narrative (presumably forward), which is why not everything a player does is a move but everything a MC does is. I think it’s also important, in that framing, that moves trigger off of something that happens in the fiction. This is, perhaps, splitting hairs, but I also argue that neither players nor characters trigger moves. The player narrates the character doing something, sure, but that creates the fictional circumstance that triggers the mechanic, which, after resolution, moves the narrative.

I don’t think that’s helpful at all in clarifying rulesets or welcoming new(ish) players, but, from a design standpoint, I like that perspective.

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This is a tricky and nuanced question.

For instance, I don’t agree that “everything the MC says is a move”. The MC is instructed to “make a move” every time they’re in the hot seat, or when the players look to them to speak, but that’s not the entirety of the conversation of play. As a simple example, NPC dialogue is not always going to be a move, nor descriptions, nor answers to players’ questions. If the players ask how far away the silo is, and the MC draws a map, explaining where everything is, that could be a move, but isn’t necessarily one. (Perhaps if the players continue to look at the MC expectantly after the map and description is complete, then the MC might actually make a move.)

Yes, this is very true.

The textual moves/rules (player-side moves, mostly) are a funny thing. Are they “triggered” by “the fiction”? Of course not. The “fiction” can’t do anything. Rather, they are prompts to the players of the game to find good spots to bring the rules into play. Some moves rely on fictional triggers (“When you drink from the Bronze Cup, roll…”), and are quite clear. Some moves rely on fictional triggers that are quite deliberately broad and open to interpretation (“Acting under fire”), or totally vague (“When you trust to the fates…”).

Other moves are entirely up to the player to call (“When you open your brain…” or “When you meet someone important (your call)…”), or require interplay between a player’s announced action and the MC or another player to actually “call” for the move (“You’re defying danger!” or “When you wish to interrupt your opponent before they do you in” or “When you submit to circumstances”), or are triggered by non-fictional causes (“At the end of the session…”).

People often ask what “system mastery” looks like in PbtA games. In my opinion, it has to do with a shared understanding of what the particular moves in that game do, and the ability to call for them in the right moments, and at the right places, so that they are seamless. This is more art than science. I’ve often had success, for example, using entirely the wrong move to highlight a moment in play.

Here’s what that might look like: in a Monsterhearts game, a bully (the Werewolf) was being quite aggressive towards the rather down-on-their-luck Mortal, and ended up stepping on their glasses, breaking them as they stomped off. I called for a “shut someone down” roll, which suited the circumstances perfectly and really highlighted that moment nicely. Not because the fictional prompt was clear or obvious - there’s no “correct” reading here - but because we, as a group, were familiar enough with the moves and their outcomes to know they would be a good fit here. It worked beautifully.

There’s an artistry to applying moves well.

Now, what about this “fiction-first” stuff? I tend to agree with Froggy that it’s a bit of a nonsense term, but it can be quite useful to draw distinctions between different kinds of rules and designs, usually used to explain rulesets that don’t have formalized procedures. (While I find “fiction-first” very hard to define, there are definitely rulesets which are NOT that, and this is much easier to see.)

I hope Froggy will tell us more about that - it’s an interesting topic!

Here’s where it’s relevant to PbtA play, though:

In many/most PbtA games (at least the original/early games), doing this move-calling magic ritual depends quite heavily on a shared understanding of the fiction. We have to all interpret it the same way, and see the application of a certain move to that fictional situation. This requires vivid fiction and for everyone to be on the same page.

I find the PbtA play improves dramatically when everyone is aware of this fact.

The takeaway, basically:

  • When you’re not sure what move to call or what’s going on, do NOT start arguing about which move is best.
  • Instead, get deeper into the described fiction, asking, clarifying, and describing. Get detailed, visual, descriptive, emotional. In the process, more of than not, the necessary move (and sometimes it’s not a move at all, it turns out!) emerges.

This is a good thing to be aware of, and helps to make PbtA games feel more grounded and feel smoother to play. So that’s definitely an argument for a more detailed and vivid fiction, compared to games which do not necessarily benefit from a deeper descriptive conversation. If someone is using “fiction-first” as a shorthand for that, I’m not going to argue.

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@Froggy has it right that most PBTA games are really hacks of AW, in that they don’t go into anything like the depth and completeness and consistency of leading you through the entire play process, the way that AW does. They’re fine, I love them, I’m writing one myself for my own table, but if you actually want to really understand how these games are intended to be played, you have to read AW.

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I agree, not everything the MC says is a move, you can see this in the example conversations in AW. Sometimes the MC is just participating in a conversation, answering a direct question, asking if anyone’s hungry and it’s time for pizza. That’s not the same thing as ‘a pause in the conversation and everyone looks at you to say something’. That trigger doesn’t fire every single time the MC opens their mouth, it’s about the MC’s responsibility to get things moving again when there’s a significant lull.

On fiction first, I think where it’s mainly applicable to AW is in understanding what Vincent means by “to do it, do it”. It’s the character being narrated as doing something that triggers a move, not the player saying “my character does this move”. So for example if my character is Gus and he’s extracting information from a lowlife “Gus goes Aggro on the snitch” isn’t good enough. “Gus pushes the scumbag’s hand towards the flames until he spills or burns” is more like it.

Instead, get deeper into the described fiction, asking, clarifying, and describing. Get detailed, visual, descriptive, emotional. In the process, more of than not, the necessary move (and sometimes it’s not a move at all, it turns out!) emerges.

Right, this is why AW doesn’t have rules for chopping through doors with an axe. It’s the same reason it doesn’t have rules for knitting, or digging ditches. There is nothing interesting per se about finding out whether Gus breaks down the door when he hits it with his axe. If you have rules for that, why don’t you have rules for knitting, or digging ditches? It’s not in the class of interesting questions.

What we care about is, does Gus chop through the door in time to escape the Bandersnatch charging at him. Ok, now we’re acting under fire, roll them bones, or we can come up with a custom move just like we would if Gus needed to dig a ditch round the cabin before sundown, or knit a copy of the Eldritch Pentacle to ward off Nyarlathotep. Is the constraint time, resources (enough wool), remembering the details of the pattern? In Call of Cthulhu we might default to a DEX, INT or EDU roll or something and AW has a fallback for stuff like that just the same way. Custom moves are not a cop out, they’re where your table takes ownership of the system.

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Following something, building on something or transcending something is not the same - obviously. But both use “the something” as an inspiration, right?

For a lot of people, including myself, AW as a whole RAW set an example in analog game design which is worthwhile to follow.

But for Vincent, it was just the formulation of his know-how back then. Since that he diverged very far (maybe the furthest?) from PbtA as AW. Just check his Patreon stuff! Some genes (memes?) from AW are still there, but these are completely different animals.

Of course, a lot of smart designers are “in the middle” so to speak with nuanced, deeper hacks.

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I’m not among his patreons (anymore) … could you offer some concrete examples? How are they different?
Like… Murderous Ghosts different?
Or the-wizards-spellbook-game different?

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