2012-06-18 : Moves as Jumping-off Points

At the top of my current Q&A thread, Jim D, John Harper and I talked a tiny bit about Apocalypse World's moves as a provocative jumping off point for interesting fiction, not just as a productive constraint, and John said:

The fact that it's not hard to make good jumping-off points is key to the popularity of AW as a hacking framework.

I'd like to say what I think about this, then throw it open for all of your observations and thoughts.

Compelling Fiction

My model for compelling fiction in rpgs goes like this: a protagonist or protagonists with internal integrity, who'll act with will toward a purpose, in a situation that denies them what they want and need. They act and react, and the other people and forces around them act and react, according to their own natures. Because their interests are incompatible, their actions are in conflict, and because it's in no one's nature to simply sacrifice their own best interests to someone else's, the conflicts escalate. A conflict escalates until one side's exhausted or broken, or loses its will - until they can't or won't stay in the fight - and there the conflict resolves. One side's interests prevail, but only after they've proven their need and suffered the full cost for it.

Escalating conflict and resolution is the backbone of compelling fiction in this model.

Arenas of Conflict

When one character acting with purpose meets another character acting with conflicting purpose, I call the nature of their conflicting actions an "arena of conflict." Very broadly, the social arena, the physical arena, the political arena, the military arena, the academic arena, the legal arena, the theological arena, the commercial arena, and so on. More specifically, car chases, fistfights, courtroom shenanigans, caper sequences, cat and mouse sequences, seduction, intimidation, and undead hillbillies chasing you through the woods with a bear trap on a chain.

As the conflict between the characters escalates, it can both escalate within a single arena of conflict and escalate from one arena of conflict to another. A car chase goes as far as it can and becomes a running gun fight, which becomes a cat and mouse sequence on moving subway cars. Pierce Brosnan's character flatters Geoffrey Rush's, then provokes him, then coerces him, then sells him out.

Which arenas of conflict are available to the characters? This is an important piece of genre. In Dangerous Liasons, the conflicts play out in one set of arenas - flattery and seduction, charged but mannered conversation, personal provocation and entrapment, ultimately a duel with swords. In The Avengers, the conflicts play out in an entirely different set of arenas.

Apocalypse World's Moves

Apocalypse World's moves (1) create the arenas of conflict in which the game's action plays out, and (2) create the differences between those arenas of conflict. They do it in a transparent and accessible way, simply by saying "these are the things that characters do when they're in conflict with one another, and these are the different possible outcomes of each."

They help you see and understand the genre you're working in. You can create a set of moves by watching a movie or reading a book, taking note of what the protagonists do, and taking note of what happens when they do them. Or by just imagining scenes that you'd like to see! You can check your set of moves against another work in the same genre to make sure they're complete and sound.

The differences between the arenas they create is just as important as the range of arenas they create. In fiction, according to this model, the differences between the arenas matter because in different arenas, different characters are stronger and weaker, different things are at risk and different things can be won, and different things are under the characters' control or out of it.

Apocalypse World's moves create these differences, again transparently and accessibly, not only by having different possible outcomes, but by having materially different procedures. Some moves have you ask another player questions. Some let you choose the outcome, others let another player choose the outcome. Some leave your next action unbiased, some offer enticements, some cut off possibilities, some make demands.

In Sum

So that's what I've got. Apocalypse World's moves are jumping-off places for interesting fiction because they're how these interesting characters escalate and resolve their conflicts, and they make it easy to create interesting jumping-off places because they're a structured way to express your take on a genre.

What do you think?

1. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Oh, for the sake of citation, I should say that this model of interesting fiction is straight out of The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri, as introduced to me by Ron Edwards, and wholly in line with what my AP English teacher Mrs. Nacca tried to teach me, plus every lit and writing professor I had after her. I didn't invent any of this stuff!


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yrs go "squee!"*

*click in for more

2. On 2012-06-18, Gregor Vuga said:

I think the many hacks out there (either finished or not) are a testament particularly to the part where you say "They help you see and understand the genre you're working in. "

Once Apocalypse World gave us moves as discrete bits of modeling various forms of conflict, suddenly a whole darn lot of books, movies and other stories became much more easily accessible as source material for design. You just look at some story sequence and you go "Ok, so when a character does this, it depends on this, and these things can happen." It's friggin obvious in retrospect, but AW really opened that up.

And you only need to pay attention to the conflicts that interest you and are important to your source material. There is no need to design "universal resolution mechanics" or "world physics" to carry the fiction. Only the interesting parts (and different genres consider different things interesting). Each particular move might be considered a subsystem for the fictional moments that the game's genre finds meaningful. In that sense, yeah AW is and amazing jump-off point.

(I think the one thing that I've seen a lot of hacks stumble on was genres or fiction where there can be a very direct, duel-like confrontation between characters where both of their skills are important. AW's framework can handle that in various ways, but not in the ways people are used to.)


3. On 2012-06-18, Kit said:

There's something important that you left out. Moves snowball.

It's really possible (and I've seen it in some hacks) to make a set of moves that don't mesh, where the motion of one move does not lead you to another move?at least not without everyone at the table having to step back and say "OK, so, that happened. What should happen next in this genre?"

The moves in AW are pretty well-calibrated to make you want to do another thing (which, oh hey, happens to have a move for it) after someone else does a thing towards you.


4. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Ah! Yes indeed.


5. On 2012-06-18, Kit said:

Also, I'd like to talk with you some time about alternatives to "until one side's exhausted or broken, or loses its will". I think that there are other ways for drama to resolve, but I don't really know what I think they are, yet.


6. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Me neither!

But I'm cool with it if there are. Conflicts escalate until they're settled somehow, and in roleplaying, at least of the "play to find out" sort, you discover how they're settled when they're settled. Or else they change in subtler ways, fading away instead of settling, or seeming settled until they flare up again later or something. It's hard to predict, and sometimes you don't even really notice it when it happens. Two sessions later, you realize that something's been different between Dremmer and the PCs, since now Dremmer's war against them has turned into some kind of grudging mutual affection, and how on earth did that happen?

Anyhow, sure, whatever you come up with, please say!


7. On 2012-06-18, zac in viriginia said:

i intend to sit through a great deal of Netflix, writing down Move ideas, and see how your theory "handles", Vincent.

on another note - - i've heard Vincent, Gregor, and probably others say that AW handles direct PC v. PC conflict in a way that's unusual or wonky or something. can anybody help me understand more about this?


8. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Protagonist vs protagonist conflict isn't a big part of Apocalypse World's genre. Take Firefly: the protagonists disagree, argue, sometimes come to blows or threaten to drop each other out of airlocks, but they never actually try to hurt each other and they always resolve their differences when there's a real enemy to deal with.

Consequently, Apocalypse World doesn't handle it particularly well when the PCs actually try to hurt each other. It's not built for that. It can handle it, but it doesn't make it easy on the MC, the MC really has to keep a tight reign and insist upon using the rules very precisely. It's exhausting!

Anyhow, sooner or later, some enterprising hacker is going to make a set of moves that handle PC vs PC conflict beautifully. It's a limitation in Apocalypse World's particular set of moves, not a limitation inherent to the form.


9. On 2012-06-18, John Harper said:

PC vs. PC conflict in Monsterhearts is pretty great.


10. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Excellent! I suspect we're going to get some PC vs PC action very soon in our game.


11. On 2012-06-18, Rafu said:

Vincent, you say: "Protagonist vs protagonist conflict isn't a big part of Apocalypse World's genre."
And I find this super-interesting because, well...

Oh, wait! I should probably make a premise that I had (and still have) no idea what the reference "genre" for AW is. The sum of the various playbooks (including the thick MC playbook with its punk language and colorful examples) feels to me like a genre of its own.

So, I find this super-interesting because: protagonist vs. protagonist conflict has been both bread-and-butter to my AW play and the absolute focus of my most meaningful experiences with that game. The latter tend to highlight protagonist-protagonist-protagonist triangles involving critical shifts in loyalties.
I don't believe I particularly pushed to get this kind of play out of AW, nor that any of my fellow players did. Rather, it felt like parts of the playbooks and other tools "made us do it": isn't the Brainer, for example, a two-legged recipe for intestine conflict? Most things about Hx also look like they're pushing that way.


12. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Awesome! Shows what I know.


13. On 2012-06-19, David Berg said:

I totally dig the distinction between different arenas of conflict wherein different factors apply.  (A cowboy game with one move for "gunfights" is doings its genre a disservice; a duel vs the main badass badguy and a running shoot 'em up against a herd of mooks are two totally different arenas, resolved according to different factors.)  Good stuff!

Side note: I'd say that a lot of genre conventions are defined not just in relation to the fictional reality of a situation (who's where, doing what), but by the narrative position of a situation (what we care about now, given what's come before).  An action hero game might do well to make you roll +Resilience to use the stage a comeback move, which you can only use against a character who's previously defeated you.


14. On 2012-06-19, Alex. D said:

Hey, zac, from personal experience I'd say that the theory handles well. I've wanted to create something "cyberpunk" for a while, based on a general overview / vague memory of the ideas involved. As you can imagine, it didn't go well! When I sat down and re-read the Sprawl and took notes, though, man, did my playbooks and playbook moves just come to me in a way that was really satisfying.

- Alex


15. On 2012-06-19, Vincent said:

David: Ugh. Serves me right for using the word "genre," I guess.

Well, everybody, you can take David's approach if you want to, nothing's stopping you. Just notice that it takes conflicts' escalation and resolution out of the hands of the characters and puts them in the hands of formula.

Most of the movies that work the way David describes are parodies.


16. On 2012-06-19, zac in viriginia said:

it's harder than i thought! i've decided to go with "80s fantasy movies" (specifically Willow and Dragonslayer), and i'm seeing just how much that mini-genre has in common with modern adventure fiction generally.

i was thinking last night about ron's old distinction between pastiche and theme. that feels relevant, but i'm not sure how to explain.


17. On 2012-06-19, Vincent said:

Hey, if any of you have many hours to lose, go read Todd Alcott.

I meant to just quickly link to his series on Archer, here, where he says that a key quality of farce is a mismatch between conflicts and the arenas they play out in: "the higher the stakes are, the more serious the 'mission,' the more base the cast's motivations should be." But lower down the search page are links to his posts on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Hudsucker Proxy and it is only with supreme discipline that I can tear myself away. I've got work to do!


18. On 2012-06-19, Tim Ralphs said:

Yeah, so I've had Vincent's experience with PC v. PC conflict. I wonder if we can pin it down a bit. Remember Concentric Game Design and how Apocalypse World collapses gracefully downward? I think PC v. PC conflict doesn't collapse quite so gracefully, and I think that's why it feels like it's more work to keep it smooth.


19. On 2012-06-19, Jim D said:

Heh, looks like I'm late to my own party.

I confess the idea of "only model the interesting parts" and the potential folly of "universal mechanics" (per Gregor's comment) caught me completely off-guard, though perhaps that's the byproduct of a mind raised on d20.

My own work has been trying to hold fast to the idea of an "old school"-style treatise on action movies of the 1980s, and eschewing details that didn't matter.  A couple friends of mine (and I myself) have expressed concern about what the game *doesn't* do well—things like involved social conflict—but here it turns out that I accidentally stumbled into the right answer.  I guess it's a natural extension of one of the biggest tricks in game mechanics that I've found, namely "reinforce actions in play you want to see more of, and de-emphasize ones that you don't."  Action movies are about action, so why not concentrate on it?  (Would this also be why latter-day D&D games are essentially the story of the murderhobo, since they want to allow any natural course of action, but pay undue emphasis and reward to fighting?)

Looking back on what little I've learned about the lofty goals of the OSR, it now suddenly makes more sense why these games are willing to use completely different systems for varying actions, and why that's not only okay, it's *better* than where the brands from which they're inspired went in the 90s.

tl;dr:  Thanks, guys.  Nice to finally understand why what I was thinking was wrong, and what I was doing was right.


20. On 2012-06-19, Matteo Turini said:

What Rafu said about PC vs PC resonates with me, too. Most of the best gaming sessions of Apocalypse World I've ever had involved PCs trying to kill/hunt down/isolate/nail other PCs.

I mean... There's a brainer, a chopper, a skinner and a hardholder... It's a recipe for (a beautiful) disaster!


21. On 2012-06-19, Josh W said:

I can see the sort of thing you mean about protagonist vs protagonist moves:

One interesting thing about the way apocalypse world's moves resolve is that they go protagonist vs world. Protagonist acts, world shows the costs and tradeoffs of that action. And by default, player characters are also part of that world the mechanics speak for.

If your rules treat "characters" in a satisfying and respectful way, then players will be happy for the move to apply to their characters, but there can still be slip ups:

For example, suppose you use the old "seize by force" on a pacifistic angel PC. The move is implicitly assuming that he will trade harm for harm, that's part of the tradeoff.

And by implicitly assuming the kind of animosity, the kind of reaction, that the player character does, it could jar people.

In that situation, the rules for checking whether the move applies change; you don't have to just look at the PC anymore, but to the attitude of other characters, before we even know whether the move triggers.

Going aggro? Doesn't matter, the move can just trigger straight off. Same for stuff like in brain puppet strings.

I can imagine a version of seduce/manipulate that skips the "if they are a player" clause having a very different effect on play; everyone would be automatically "corrupt", and you wouldn't be able to know when your character has a price.

Like some of the more dystopian old Chinese stories.

You could probably fix that in specific cases with something like the following moves:

Take the high road

When your character would deal harm with obvious cause, roll+cool
on a hit, you hold back, on a 10+ choose three on a 7-9 choose two

Your restraint causes things to cool down for a sec
They recognise it and will return the favour sometime
You don?t take harm in the process
No-one else decides to stand up to them in your stead


When you are being drawn to betray your bonds of fidelity roll+bond
on a 10+ choose 2 on a 7-9 choose 1

you get +1 forward to act against those who encouraged you
you do not act under fire
you do not give in

If you do betray your bonds, mark xp.

Somewhat like instincts in burning wheel these kinds of moves would interrupt the general "how characters would act" assumptions. Also, like replacement effects in magic the gathering, instead of adding to what is happening, they warp existing mechanics into new forms.

Obviously, this changes the conversation flow to include interruptions, and risks adding the bottomless well of ?exception based design? to the game. There are monsters down there.


22. On 2012-06-20, Rafu said:

Matteo, of course you were in the triangle I was most eminently thinking of!

Josh, if Rex the Gunlugger goes Seize by force against Bish the Angel, to wrestle the last dose of morphine in the fucking world from him, and Bish doesn't want to fight her back hard because he's a tree-hugging pacifist... then maybe he can gently push her back for 0-harm? (While sliding the morphine vial into the collar of his own body armor to Interfere with her, of course.) Or maybe, you know, maybe Seize by force wasn't the right move here at all, and we should rewind and say it's something else instead.


23. On 2012-06-20, Josh W said:

Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm talking about, seize by force is an interesting move because of the threat of taking harm back, that's it's hard choice, but unlike loads of other moves, you have to rewind to make it fit depending on other people's attitude.

Seduce/manipulate evades this by having one set of results for npcs, another for players.

My thought was that you could interrupt a move with another, making it so that the "if it's a player character" clause of seduce manipulate is instead a move used by specific player characters.

But there's a problem I noticed while making those moves, and I think it's actually a bigger thing:

While that stuff about interesting player conflict is true, I don't think it's why the framework of apoc world is so good, and importantly, it's not what makes it good for making evocative hacks:

It's good because there are very very few "metarules". Very few rules that act mainly on other rules, rather than the fictional situation, and in addition, most rules in apoc world trigger then add stuff to complicate the situation.

If two rules trigger at the same time, you usually don't check their interaction, you just apply both, and they colour the situation in parallel, meaning that you can just add moves to the game to increase the detail level on the stuff you care about.

The only rules I can think of that really mess with other rules are help/interfere, the hx bit at the start, and the battlebabe's sex move. Another big example would be defending in dungeon world.

Moves that interfere with other moves obviously do that, or apply through the normal channels of +1 forward etc.

That's why you can just sit down with a film and write new moves based on what you see, because each rule operates in a focused and contained manner, and this modularity allows you to just keep adding stuff.

And not only do they act in a modular way, most of them act as a little bucket of that genre/narrative causality stuff that you've siphoned out by watching the film, spitting more fictional content into the situation, in a similar way to random tables, but more controlled.

The way I see it, apocalypse world embodies a unix-tool approach to game design, where every subsystem is composed of tiny nuggets of limited scope and coherent functionality, within a framework of broader principles. And just like in software development, this encourages hacks.

That's also why my moves above are not a good idea, because exception based design is a different framework, one that lives off subversion of expectations, and so makes development costs of adding or changing features exponentially prohibitive.

The only exceptions based stuff I can see working in apoc world without weakening it's structure is stuff that has to be pre-primed by previous or current action and has a limited lifespan, so that you can always keep tabs on possible interactions.


24. On 2012-06-20, Vincent said:

About seizing by force: notice that the move includes using force to hold on to what you have. Just ask the angel if he's going to fight back. If he is, they both roll to seize by force, and both sets of results apply to the exchange of harm. (They can both also interfere with one another's rolls.) If he isn't, it's going aggro instead, one-sided.

But! I agree, Josh, top to bottom. Right on.


25. On 2012-06-23, Evan said:

With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Todd Alcott was like "Dude, I didn't know until later in life that John Wayne is a brilliant-ass actor with lots of nuance."

With Hudsucker Proxy, Todd Alcott was like "Dude, I didn't know until later that this movie was brilliant, and that the Coen Bros. shtick is to take seemingly insignificant details of otherwise standard genre fiction and blow them up to monstrous proportions."

Also, it's handy that AW is its own framework of literary and film analysis. We're going to have a discussion about this at SCMS, methinks.


26. On 2012-06-24, Graham said:

So, following on from something Kit said, I think this is a very masculine model of storytelling.

Is it all about individuals? Is it all about conflict? Why not about groups and cooperation?

(Don't get me wrong. This is self-criticism too. But I think we default to patriarchal narratives.)


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zac in go "don't let this question stay rhetorical!"

27. On 2012-06-25, J. Walton said:

Another important part is that defining the arenas of conflict doesn't limit characters to only doing things in those arenas. This is really important!

Some of the most human parts of AW play is when you do something and it's totally not an established move at all, it's something that just happens. There's interesting stuff (not tension exactly, but something) between doing-stuff-that's-established-moves and doing-stuff-that's-not-established-moves.

That's also critical to how moves work, in my mind.


28. On 2012-06-25, Vincent said:

Graham: Well, I don't know. I kind of think that it's a only a matter of emphasis, that "group" and "cooperation" are just "individuals" and "in conflict," suggestively rephrased. But I haven't thought about it very hard and I'm no kind of expert.

For certain, Apocalypse World isn't all about individuals and conflict, it is also about groups and cooperation. Whether this is because it transcends the model, or because it's a relatively nuanced expression of the model, depends on your view of the model, I suppose. Is the patriarchal narrative mandated by the model, or just, yes, a default example of it?

Heck, maybe suggestive rephrasing counts as a different model. I don't know.

But so, whatever! Yes! Bring on other models.

J. Walton: I agree.


29. On 2012-06-25, Vincent said:

Let me reiterate, lest I prefaced and hedged it to death: Bring on other models. Yes!


30. On 2012-06-25, Gregor Vuga said:

I don't want to be terse, but to me saying AW is all about individuals and conflict seems a bit like saying Poison'd is about getting mechanical bonuses from [horrible things]. There is something else going on there.

But yes, yay to new models! Graham your card restaurant game is an amazing example of pioneering that direction.


31. On 2012-07-01, Alex Abate Biral said:

Vincent, I am really sorry if this question goes in a direction you don't care to discuss right now. Please, feel free to tell me to bug you about this another time (or not at all).

But I have been in the last months trying to work on a "hack" of Apocalypse World that tried to be the most focused Step on Up game I could come up with. Now, of course, designing a game by trying to adhere to an arbitrary measure like this is not the smartest thing to do. But this actually started just as a mental exercise (for me to try to understand AW's design better), but the more I worked on it, the more I thought it would be a fun game, something worth of being developed.

So, on to my point. One aspect of AW I am trying to work on is how the moves work. In AW, as you explained in your post, the moves determine different places the action can jump off to, according to the dice roll and the specific situation at the table.

What I am trying to change is that, instead of jumping to a situation, there is one extra step. The die roll doesn't make the whole way through the IIEE model. It always stops short of the last E, and in rare situations might not make it even past the first I. Instead, it yields a result that nevertheless doesn't solve the current action. Then, it is up to the players (with the MC taking the lead) to decide how the action develops, according to the specific situation at hand and the imaginary details.

For example, in a fight, Zert (my character) decides to rush toward a spearman and cut him with his sword. Now, without any other details being present, this is a rather foolish action to take. The spearman has the range advantage here, and I didn't try to counter it in any way. So, what the dice say isn't if my character can do it or not. What they say is what kind of attack Zert executed. Maybe he rushed him recklessly. Maybe he went for it right as the spearman was recovering his guard. The group then might decide that in none of these cases I manage to get my intent (to do that, I will need to deal with the range problem). Instead, because of how the situation and my action fitted with each other, this is instead about how hurt Zert is from running straight into a spear (if I am lucky, maybe only a flesh wound to the arm).

So, the point of all this is to make the conflict resolution more about the player's skills, their capacity to invent ways to solve the situations at the table. But this seems a bit of a radical departure, I think. I am a bit afraid that doing this might be a bad idea. While the actual implementation involves a little more than this (combat for example, may involve some situational variables such as how tired you are and how "tight" is your guard), that is pretty much the gist of it. Do you have any thoughts about this change of the normal Apocalypse World resolution system?


32. On 2012-07-02, Vincent said:

Alex: Well, it doesn't sound like a bad idea to me at all. Go for it.

What I do when I'm where you are: I get down on paper the very bare minimum I need in order to give it a try, think up a super-grabby immediate situation (like "your brother's going to shoot a woman" or "the king's army is ransacking your village, house by house, dragging all the people out into the street and separating the men from the women and children"), and ask Meg if she can spare 5 minutes. Once I see it in action, even for just 5 minutes, I can tell whether I'm on the right track, what direction I need to go from here, and how much work it's probably going to take.


33. On 2012-07-02, Alex Abate Biral said:

Hey, thanks! I have this tendency of keeping design ideas to myself until I think they are good enough to be seen by other people (usually never). So I guess this is something I really should start doing more.


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