I think @Airk pointing at uncertainty is really key here. Forgive me, but… all of this makes me think of some pretty 50,000 foot RPG theory! Let me see if I can be succinct about it.
One of the big questions for me as a designer is “why do we use dice/cards/randomizers to tell these stories?” In my experience, we invoke these randomizers to declaim responsibility about outcomes. If your paladin tries to kill an orc, we can say:
- sure, you do it.
- no, you don’t do it
- let’s roll some dice!
The outcome is predicated on the group’s understanding of the uncertainty. You don’t roll dice to tie your shoes (sure, you do it) or to travel through time (no, you don’t do it), but there are plenty of situations in which the game is stronger because we don’t already have a clear sense of the outcome when the action is taken. That’s the secret sauce of RPGs imo: we are telling a story we do not yet know.
So the real question for me in any system I’m working in/running is “What things require me (the GM) to declaim responsibility for the outcome? When can I say ‘yes/no’ and when do I have to invoke the mechanics of the game to see how things play out?”
In OSR games, the task-based nature of the game tends to create situations of uncertainty around accomplishment, i.e. we roll dice to see whether or not you can do the thing. But the GM has to have some limits on that declamation. If a PC tries to throw a rock into space, then the GM has the authority to say “I’m not declaiming responsibility for this outcome; you can’t do it.” Thus, if the PCs find a way in the fiction to kill a monster or overcome a trap in a way that satisfies the fictional position of the situation, then there is no roll because there is no uncertainty.
I think that all scans for most folks even if they are new to the concept of uncertainty and declaiming responsibility for outcomes. What’s strange for most players is how PbtA games handle uncertainty, a concept made more opaque by many published games that fail to use it wisely.
In PbtA games, we still only roll when the outcome is uncertain. If you shoot an incapacitated dude in the head at point blank range in Apocalypse World (1e), then that dude is dead. There’s no roll, no seizing by force, no _going aggro. If I’m the GM, I look at those outcomes (harm, impress/frighten/etc) and I think “All of this is known. This guy dies. The cost is a bullet.” But if that guy is standing up and shooting at you, then all those stakes suddenly spring to life and the outcome is uncertain enough to merit a roll.
But PbtA is built on a framework of moves instead of tasks. Those moves don’t describe your ability to do or not do a thing—although some designers make the mistake of thinking that’s what moves do—as much as they highlight a point of categorical uncertainty. Cartel, for example, says that the stakes of shooting someone invoke harm, sure, but the moves around violence also invoke collateral damage and resisting stress. In other words, the violence in Cartel is always uncertain because the stakes for violence are about what happens to everyone around the violence when violence is done.
So in many PbtA games, broad triggers (@JasonT) require judgement calls. Are you fleeing from the dead if you get in your car and drive away from a swarm of zombies? Or does it only trigger when you try to get away from them on foot? That’s up to the GM (and group) to adjudicate, but as long as the conversation relies on uncertainty—“Yeah, I think there’s no roll here because all of the stakes are about failing to flee the zombies and I think you’re fine in the car”—then you’re running the game correctly.
So in my mind:
OSR: you are in this situation and you do something clever, so don’t roll the dice. Good job!
PbtA: you are in a situation that the game has hard-coded as “uncertain,” so we will resolve the outcome of that uncertainty in the way the move has described. If you somehow removed the uncertainty, you wouldn’t have to roll!
So in essence, I think you’re right that “cleverness in PbtA is a function of triggering or not triggering moves” because that’s where the tactical play lies! If you don’t want to get in someone’s face in ZW because you’ve got a low Savagery, then… don’t trigger the move! Find a different move to trigger to get what you want with a stronger roll… or find a way to avoid moves entirely and resolve it without any uncertainty.