Drifting games, genre limitations, and fruitful voids


Chaotic Looseleaf
The reason is triggering NOT TO BE ***** WITH for my Gunlugger in Apocalypse World. Oh man I love it! 😁
I know the game describes it as such, but is it an action in the same vein as "go aggro," or is it just always on, something your character is versus something they do?

In Blades in the Dark, the equivalent ability for Cutters has to be initiated by the character taking 2 Stress. It's also described as an action itself ("engage a small gang on equal footing in close combat"). Is there an equivalent idea in play in AW, here?

Looking at the Gunlugger playbook, only one of their "moves" (F**k this naughty word) actually looks like a move to me (i.e., an active-voice present-tense verb with an associated roll), and the others just appear to be always-on mods. Battle-hardened and Battlefield Instincts modify existing basic moves, and the rest don't appear to be actions at all.

This is entirely self-educational, as it doesn't really impact my point at all. I really like character-based "moves," in D&D and elsewhere. Choices about their character should both increase and decrease a player's options within the scenario, that's the point of having a character. That's interesting, and I have no trouble with it.

What I do have trouble with is a system having a list of nine basic moves (or 12 actions, to use the Blades example) to which everyone has access and which by necessity define all activity within the scenario (custom moves aside; I've already addressed that issue from my perspective). Controlling the scenario in this way, and for every participant, feels extremely artificial to me.

But more serious, the Moves raison d'ĂȘtre are twofold: genre-emulation and shared narration. They guarantee the game will always 1) be about what's on the tin, instead of say, selling itself as personal horror but end up being about supers action;
And it's this idea of genre emulation that is really at the core of my problem. I ran a D&D5 campaign from 2014-2019 that was mostly heroic fantasy, sure, but at intervals it was also:
  • a horror game,
  • a detective game not unlike Gumshoe,
  • an eldritch mystery game not unlike Call of Cthulhu,
  • a game of political intrigue not unlike Vampire: the Masquerade, and
  • a game of building a criminal empire not unlike Blades in the Dark

--all without me modifying the rules. Now, I drew upon my knowledge of how these other games operated, certainly, but I felt constrained in terms of house rules, as the whole table was essentially new tabletop gamers. We got a little more adventurous later on, but for the most part I cleaved very closely to the core rules of the game.

Now, did D&D do any of these things as well as a dedicated system would have? Absolutely not. But could any of these dedicated systems be used to do this in turn? ...Maybe WoD. WoD covers some big swings in concept.

There's a ton of power in the PbtA format, it just asks the table to give up too much for my tastes.

and 2) have everybody contribute equally to the fiction (GM included) instead of giving the privilege to only one participant.
I get this second point from fans of storygames (that's shorthand, not judgment) or refugees from D&D all the time, but it is a bad faith take. Bad D&D is bad D&D just like bad PbtA is bad PbtA or bad Fate is bad Fate, and I've suffered through all of these things.

Yes, a bad dungeon master is a failed novelist, and there are way more bad dungeon masters than there are bad gamemasters for other systems -- it's a matter of pure statistics -- but a good dungeon master doesn't bogart the fiction. There's nothing intrinsic to D&D that says the players have to be disenfranchised in this way.

Even Gygax understood this, I think, when he wrote in the 1st Edition DMG:
It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on o life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. It becomes fleshed out, and adventuring breathes life into a make believe world....

What this all boils down to is that once the campaign is set in motion, you will become more of a recorder of events, while the milieu seemingly charts its own course!

But even if I'm misinterpreting him there, narrativist D&D was in full swing by the release of Dragonlance in 1984. If a plurality of more vocal dungeon masters have chosen to disregard this premise of the game, it shouldn't reflect poorly on the rest of us or on the game itself.

Those goals arose from the storygaming movement and their reaction to a specific gaming culture that was prevalent in the 90s (of which Vampire the Masquerade was probably the most popular representative). If one never saw those problems, or came up with their own solutions for them, I can see how it shouldn't cause much fuss and even feel undesirable (as seems to be your case). But for those who felt those problems, PbtA really fits like a glove.
Just for context, I played a little V:tM in my teens during the '90s, and a little more in the 2000s, but I'm still not sure if you are saying that PbtA exists because V:tM sucked (ha ha) or PbtA exists because V:tM deserved to be iterated upon. I could honestly go either way.

Here's a long post I recently wrote on exactly this point:

(post excerpted)

In either case the player says something about what their PC does. In the first case, it seems there's a good chance it will involve acting under fire. But maybe the player has their character read the situation first? In the second case that would also be an option. But maybe the player just says "F*** it! I open the door" - and that doesn't trigger a player-side move, and so now the GM makes another move, applying the same methodology to work out what that move should be.

The methodology is completely different from map-and-key, or from anything found in any D&D module or rulebook that I know of. (Including 4e D&D.)
Hi, Pemerton. Nice to speak with you again. I hope you've been well. I missed your "long posts." :)

It sounds to me like what you are doing here is giving AW credit for not adjudicating mundane minutiae, and while I'd agree that's commendable, it's hardly unique. It's not that D&D (any edition) doesn't do this, it just does it by omission, which is apparently sufficient. As evidence, I'd note that you call out by name a number of games that insist on the adjudication of minutiae, and I'd agree that they, among others of their ilk, are at best open to substantial criticism and at worst relegated to the ash heap of history.

But to offer a counterpoint, there is a school of AW thought that states a player in AW shouldn't "declare whatever action they like for their PC," or at least that the "limits of genre and fiction" are more stringent than you are allowing for.

Just to provide corroboration, because I'm admittedly not part of this community, I feel like Justin Alexander defends the validity of PbtA by making many of the points I've made above in the below Twitter threads, which I stumbled across while researching AW custom moves. I'm not going to retread, but as a summary:
Moves in Apocalypse World, by contrast, are supposed to be binding. They are like Moves in a board game: They are the list of things you are allowed to do.

Custom moves don't provide an end-run around the incredible focus provided by AW's mechanical structure.
To the contrary: They EMPHASIZE it by giving you control over the focus.

I do want to restate that I'm really only talking about my own opinions and preferences, here, and what works for me. I'm not trying to denigrate PbtA, or FitD, or the playstyle or preferences of anyone who enjoy them. It's a diverse hobby, and I think that's great. My experiences with PbtA have been unfortunately disappointing, and while my experiences with FitD have been better, making that format work for me still takes a lot of effort.

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I think regarding PbtA moves as "what you are allowed to do" (implying you are not allowed to do anything else) kinda misses something. PbtA moves are the things you do that are risky & consequential for the genre of PbTA game you are playing (and how!). You can do anything else, but such things will basically just happen because they aren't relevant to the tension demanded by the genre. Also keep in mind that many moves are quite general: "Do something under fire" covers a lot of things you can do! Same applies to most of the basic moves.



In relation to our question about what counts as a move (say with reference to the Gunlugger example), Vincent Baker answers it at great length in the chapter on Advanced F****ry, and in brief on p 281 of that chapter: All moves take the form “when __, then __.”

The "then" can be making a roll, changing a roll, adding or changing tags (like the Gunlugger who is Not to be Messed With), etc.

On the issue of "what's allowed", I think Justin Alexander is wrong (at least, just taking those tweets at face value) and I think it's not just about "not adjudicating mundane minutiae". I don't even quite agree with @niklinna that it's to do with what is or isn't "relevant to the tension demanded by the genre".

It's about shaping the conversation, ie the back-and-forth between players and GM about what is happening to and about the PCs. When a player declares an action for their PC that doesn't trigger a player-side move, the GM's job is to respond by making a move of their own - typically a soft move unless the player hands them an opportunity on a plate (eg by ignoring the threat/set-up of an earlier soft move). The effect of this will be to build up the tension - to extend the rising action. The situation around the PCs is getting more and more charged!

The effect of the player rolling the dice for a basic move is to resolve that tension - either on a 6- (the GM resolves it by making a hard move, thus changing things irrevocably for the worse) or a 10+ (the player gets to resolve it irrevocably for the better). A 7 to 9, speaking at a level of abstraction, continues to step up the tension.

There are exceptions: a 10+ on a "Read" action doesn't typically resolve things - it just allows the player to ask more questions and hence to set more parameters around the tension that is growing. Opening Your Brain is similar. This fits with the general them of AW that matters are only resolved by getting people to do what you want (Go Aggro, Seduce/Manipulate), or else either getting them out of your way (Seize by Force), or getting out of their way (Acting Under Fire).

Adding new basic moves doesn't change what actions anyone can declare. But it might change how those action can figure in the way the "story" of the PCs involves build-up and release of tension. To elaborate this point, consider how Vincent Baker opens his extended example of play (p 152):

Marie the brainer goes looking for Isle, to visit grief upon her, and finds her eating canned peaches on the roof of the car shed with her brother Mill and her lover Plover (all NPCs).​

There is no basic move When you go looking for someone or even Whey you go looking for someone to visit grief upon them - and so this is a completely legitimate action declaration by Marie's player, but it doesn't trigger a basic move. It just has the GM make a soft move in reply: here, the GM provides an opportunity to Marie's player (ie the opportunity to interact with Isle), though with at least a hint of a cost (because there are other people there who might want to get in the way).

If there was basic moves like the one I've described, then Marie's player would be potentially shaping the fiction in different ways by choosing to have Marie go looking for Isle. This would change the "flavour"/theme of the game, reducing its focus on interpersonal conflict and increasing its focus on investigation as such as a context in which conflicts reach their resolution.

(Btw, if you're interest in a thread about 18 months ago I imagined how things might unfold if the GM made a different sort of move in response to Marie's player's action declaration: thoughts on Apocalypse World?, thoughts on Apocalypse World?, thoughts on Apocalypse World?, thoughts on Apocalypse World? and thoughts on Apocalypse World?.)


On the issue of "what's allowed", I think Justin Alexander is wrong (at least, just taking those tweets at face value) and I think it's not just about "not adjudicating mundane minutiae". I don't even quite agree with @niklinna that it's to do with what is or isn't "relevant to the tension demanded by the genre".
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