Some thoughts on genre fluency and AW-descended games

Games descended from Apocalypse World are amazingly good at emulating and/or interrogating genre. Apocalypse World covers post-apocalyptic fiction, Monsterhearts covers teenage supernatural romance, and Hearts of Wulin focuses on wuxia stories. Because of the whole idea of Moves being triggered by the fiction (“to do it, do it”) people familiar with a game’s genre are generally going to need to know less about the actual Moves because they can just play the characters and have them do genre-appropriate things which will eventually trigger Moves (generally recognized by the MC, but hopefully the other players at the table familiar with the system would feel comfortable pointing those triggers out when they happen too).

Players coming to the game with no knowledge of the genre will have to rely more on the Moves lists because it points them towards actions appropriate to the genre. They will have to actively spend brain power to look at the Moves list while playing to determine what they should be doing, which is going to leave them less brain power to be actively participating/listening.

I am wondering if there are ways we can better support those players new to the genre. Maybe proactively reaching out to them to point them to media they could look over to get a feel for the genre - maybe have that be part of the info you give players ahead of time? (Perhaps part of playbooks themselves?) Perhaps an abbreviated Moves sheet - just with the trigger actions and the names of the Moves? (ie not the actual full text - someone with more system mastery at the table can let them know what to do once their character triggers the Move.)

As I thought this over something else came to mind: there seem to be more and more games based on Apocalypse World coming out these days that either have extremely niche genres or have no pre-existing genre at all. That means people coming to play the game for the first time have a much bigger chunk of work to do at the table. They have little to no genre to fallback on, which means they mostly have to learn the genre from the Moves. In this scenario it would seem that the design of the Moves would need to be a lot more deliberate than in situations where many players can fall back to genre. (Because the designer is basically creating the genre conventions whole cloth via the Moves.)

What have you seen games (or people facilitating games) do to support you both before you get to the table and while at the table when it comes to genre conventions/expectations? How can we do this better? How can minimize the speed bumps lack of genre knowledge creates at the table?


here’s my two cents…

1-Watching actual play does help get the flow of the game and how narration triggers moves, while not all games have AP out there, their numbers are growing.
2-There is always some learning for any game, even simple stuff like world of dungeons, but I think learning PBTA moves is easier than vancian casting in D&D or interpreting triumphs/despair in FFG star wars, both of which are pretty core to those games.
3-Most pbta games have reference sheets for the player facing rules already, and most of the names of the moves harken to genre and tell you what they are about.
4-As far as i know, in ye olde days people would take a break from dnd and play shadowrun or call of cthulhu etc, with pbta people have mainstay games like urbanshadows, dungeon world or masks, and take a break to play the warren, Night witches or Epyllion. (and no that’s not a criticism of those games).
5-As for supporting players new to the system/genre/community, let them know to ask questions before, during and after the dice hit the table.
6-A good summary/premise helps, this game is about doing X in Y place with Z tropes. A and B is normal, C and D is outside the scope of the game.


I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the OP. I don’t think using the moves list as a set of suggestions for things your character could do requires more brain power than not. I find that a well-defined moves list actually helps me pay more attention to the fiction, because I can trust that I have some guidance when it comes time for me to act, so I don’t have to be thinking as hard about my character’s potential actions. I find playing to genre far easier in PbtA than in more open-ended (non-“moves”-based) games.

I think a lot of the discussion of PbtA and genre frames the games as emulating a genre that already exists (since that’s what AW, MH, and DW did). That framing sets up these kinds of questions about how games can work when players aren’t familiar with the genre, or when the genre doesn’t exist prior to the game. So from that point of view, PbtA is always going to be derivative or following behind other media, dependent on movies, books, comics, etc to define the genre. But I would rather think of PbtA as genre generation. The game is set up to generate a story that is built around a set of themes and tropes, whether or not that genre exists prior to the game. Maybe a game could be successful enough that you’d get other media following the game.


My strategy is to not care so much if the players don’t act in-genre, and instead connect their actions with genre-appropriate outcomes. Of course, I tell them what’s up OOC as soon as I notice the mismatched expectations, and try to correct their expectations in as simple a way as I can.

Example: If someone acts too “light of justice in a world of good versus evil” in a “black-and-grey morality” cyberpunk game, I’ll let them know OOC that they’re going to run into a lot more moral ambiguity than their character expects, but characters like theirs are common in the genre: They just tend to run into situations where their actions have unintended consequences, and they find themselves in situations where there’s no good choice and no superman “find the third option” solution.

Then, when they risk life and limb to save the plucky working class community from the corporate land barons who want to bulldoze it to erect a gated community for their middle managers, the player won’t be surprised when the corporate controlled police stop enforcing the law in that neighborhood and erect checkpoints on the main routes in and out, turning the hardworking community into an impoverished economic ghetto/DMZ.

In fact, the player should be thrilled, because they should have expected that sort of outcome. Of course, their next step will probably be to organize a resistance movement or some such, but I know how I’d respond to that, too… :slight_smile:


I think the genius of the asymmetrical player/MC move structure is that even if the players aren’t entirely familiar with the genre, the MC moves and principles will generally nudge them in the direction of triggering moves whether they mean to or not.

Beyond that, though, I think one of the kindest things we can do for newcomers to this play style is to give them time to internalize the moves at their disposal, and start them with only a subset of those moves (like starting with basic moves before introducing supplemental battle moves in session 3 or something). I find new players can sometimes get overwhelmed if they feel like they have to look at all the moves whenever they want to act, especially if they’ve got experience with other games where constantly monitoring a detailed character sheet for situationally useful tactics is actually strongly encouraged by the system (or actively penalized if they’re not on the ball … D&D 4th edition comes to mind).

Being clear about expectations early (e.g., using CATS, or just some reassurances that “this isn’t like this other game you know, so don’t worry about X”) can also do a world of good here.


I like PbtA as a starting point for new players because of the genre emulation. I’ll often start by asking about tv genres they enjoy and then pitch a PbtA game that matches that genre. We start play barely touching mechanics and lean heavy on “it sounds like you’re trying to (this move), does that sound right?” to introduce mechanical bits