Powered by the Apocalypse, part 5

Using Apocalypse World to Outline and Draft Your Own RPG

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Here’s What

Apocalypse World offers a powerful, flexible framework you can use to outline, draft, and potentially finish your own roleplaying games. Dozens of creators, both experienced designers and first-timers, have used it with great success, and you can too. It’s not a game system as such, it’s an approach to game system design. It’s easy, and it’s a reliable way to get your creative vision quickly into a playable form.

Back in Part 1, I laid out Apocalypse World’s philosophy and foundation, described the fit and purpose of its systems, and talked about which features are central to its workings and which aren’t.

Then in Part 2, I walked through the beginnings of taking Apocalypse World’s parts and using them as the basis for a whole new game.

In Part 3, I dived back into Apocalypse World’s basic moves. I went through them one by one to talk about how and why they work the way they do.

In Part 4, I talked about playbooks, by request. What are they, do you want them in your game, and what are the alternatives?

Here in Part 5, I’m taking a quick aside to talk about some different ways that moves can fit into the conversation of play.

In Part 6, to come, I’m going to use an Ursula K. LeGuin quote — you probably already know the one — as an outline for alternative models to Apocalypse World’s model of conflict.

Reminder: The Goal is to Create a Playable Outline

Goal: Create a Playable Outline
Cycle: Outline, Play & Revise, Full Draft
* Game design means iteration.
* The first step is to create something you can try.
* Is PbtA your final goal? Could be, could be not.

The process of game design for me is intensely iterative: a first stab, then play & revise, play & revise, play & revise. Eventually, after enough iterative cycles, I can make a full draft. Then comes more play and revision as I take the game public, and only once all of those cycles are done do I go on to finish the game for release.

So this series is about only that first goal: to make something you can try. The rest of the process, the vast bulk of the process, we’ll have to take up another time.

I want to emphasize and re-emphasize: maybe, at the end of the iterative process, you have a PbtA game, or maybe you set PbtA aside somewhere along the way and come out with something else altogether. That’s FANTASTIC.

My goal is to get you into the iterative cycle. Whatever comes out of it, is up to you.

Moves in the Conversation

3 smiley faces in conversation.

Apocalypse World is 10 years old this summer! 12 years old if you count development time.

Let’s talk about some different ways that moves can fit into the conversation of play. My thinking on this is a lot more solid today than it was 12 years ago.

Here I’m only going to talk about moves where you roll or otherwise make choices, active moves, not setup moves like “you have a car” or modifier moves like “when you go aggro, roll+weird instead.”

I have two angles I want to take on moves. The first is, how does the move fit into the conversation of play?

1. Actions, Checks, & Saves

Here are some example moves from a game that I’m not working on, I’m just making them up off the top of my head as examples. It’s some kind of D&Desque adventure and monster fighting game, and these are basic moves:

Attack
When you attack a monster, roll Quick & Strong. Tell the GM your roll and ask what happens.

GM:
Compare the player’s roll privately with the monster’s Menace rating, including modifiers for the situation.
• If the player’s roll doubles the monster’s Menace or more: The monster takes harm as established from the blow. If it survives, it breaks and flees.
• If the player’s roll beats the monster’s Menace: The monster takes harm as established from the blow. If it survives, it joins battle.
• If the player’s roll equals the monster’s Menace or less: The monster intercepts or shrugs off the blow, taking no harm, then joins battle.

(The thing where only the opening of the move is player-facing, and it doesn’t work on the usual 10+/7-9/miss scale? Don’t get distracted! It’s fine, moves can work this way, and this isn’t my point.)

Let’s say that attack is an “action” move. Your character’s within reach of a monster, you declare that you’re attacking it, you roll your dice, away you go. To make the move, you just do it.

“Action” moves: The player chooses the move and has the character take action to make it.

Most of the active moves in Apocalypse World work like this.

How about this move?

Doing Stuff
Always tell the GM what you’re doing and where you’re going. Always let the GM tell you what happens, where you are, and what you see and experience. If you have any specific questions, ask the GM. If the GM asks you any questions, answer them as best you can.

GM:
Keep an ear out for when the player has their character do something that would require them to exert themself. When they do, have them roll Quick & Strong and tell you their roll.
Compare their roll privately with the danger or difficulty of the task, consulting your notes or the appropriate guidelines. Choose how to proceed, accordingly:
• Tell them they do it, and what happens as a result.
• Tell them they realize at once that they won’t be able to do it, and ask what they do instead.
• Tell them they aren’t sure they’ll be able to do it, and ask how long they’re willing to spend in the attempt. Tell them whether they eventually accomplish it, give up first, or something interrupts them.
• Tell them they aren’t sure they’ll be able to do it, and ask if they’re going to risk it anyway. If they do, tell them what happens.
Tell them what goes wrong and what happens as a consequence.

Let’s say that exert themself is a “check” move, like “make a dexterity check.” As a player, you choose your character’s action, but it’s the GM who decides whether you’re making the move. You might know about the move in advance, or might not even.

“Check” moves: The character takes action to trigger the move, but the GM chooses and calls for the move, not the player.

In Apocalypse World, the main move that works this way is act under fire, although it’s not written out this way. As player, you might say “screw it, I’m going to run out the door and not stop until I reach Audrey’s car. On 3. I… 2… 3!”

Are you acting under fire? Only the MC can tell you.

Now how about this move?

Doing Stuff
Always tell the GM what you’re doing and where you’re going. Always let the GM tell you what happens, where you are, and what you see and experience. If you have any specific questions, ask the GM. If the GM asks you any questions, answer them as best you can.

GM:
While they’re moving around and doing things, decide for yourself where your monsters are moving and what they’re doing at the same time. If a monster comes near, they might realize it. Have them roll Careful & Quick, and compare their roll with the monster’s Stealth rating, including modifiers for the situation.
• If the player’s roll beats the monster’s Stealth: The character realizes that something’s coming and might realize what it is. Tell them what gives it away and ask them what they do.
• If the player’s roll equals the monster’s Stealth or less: The character senses danger but can’t put their finger on it. Tell them so, but don’t give them any more details until they take further action to discover them. Ask them what they do.

Let’s say that realize it is a “save” move. As player, your character’s action doesn’t matter, it could be anything or nothing. The GM might even interrupt you cold to have you make the move.

“Save” moves: The GM chooses and calls for the player to make the move, which isn’t determined by the character’s action.

There aren’t many of these in Apocalypse World. The closest are, for instance, bonefeel on a miss, or this move of No One’s:

Visions: at the beginning of the session, roll+Hard. On a 10+, the MC holds 1. On a 7–9, the MC holds 2. On a miss, the MC holds 3. If the MC now has 3 hold or more, they must begin the session by spending 1.
• The MC can spend 1 of their hold at a moment of transition to tell you that a vision comes on you, and ask where you are and who you’re with.
• The MC can spend 2 of their hold at any moment to interrupt you and tell you that a vision comes on you right now.
The MC doesn’t lose unspent hold at the end of the session, but carries it over.

AW:Burned Over: No One

2. Fictional & Nonfictional Triggers

The second angle I want to take on moves is, what triggers the move, a fictional event or a nonfictional one?

A “fictional trigger” is the fictional thing that has to happen in order for the move to happen. Some moves have them, some don’t. Some moves require you to watch and wait for them to occur outside the move, other moves allow you to assert them at need.

Here are some example moves from Apocalypse World: Burned Over:

Self-possessed: When one of your machine’s options activates, but you resist it, roll+Cool. On a 10+, you’re able to ignore your machine without struggle. On a 7-9, you’re effectively able to interrupt your machine: you must deal with it somehow instead of doing what you intended. On a miss, you’re able to resist your machine, but exchange the option immediately for another.

AW:Burned Over: the Weaponized

Peel back the disguise: When you are present with a wolf of the maelstrom, you can choose to roll+Weird. On a 10+, everyone here sees them clearly, albeit for only a moment, before their disguise reasserts itself. On a 7-9, people catch a glimpse, unclearly, and get an impression of either what they look like or but… Ask the MC which. On a miss, people see wolves where they are not.

AW: Burned Over: the Vigilant

Oftener right: When another player’s character comes to you for advice, tell them what you honestly think the best course is. If they do it, they take +1 to any rolls they make in the doing, and you mark +1 toward improvement.

AW:Burned Over: the Gearcutter

Self-possessed has one fictional trigger, when one of your machine’s options activates, and then another, you resist it. The former requires you to watch and wait for it to happen, outside of the move. Once it does happen, you choose whether to assert that you resist it, triggering self-possessed, or not.

Peel back the disguise has only one fictional trigger, when you are present with a wolf of the maelstrom, but then has a second nonfictional trigger, you can choose.

Both these and oftener right all have fictional triggers that must occur wholly outside the move itself, so that you can’t choose to make the move simply by saying that you do so. Instead, you have to watch and wait for the opportunity to make the move to come true: for one of your machine’s options to activate, for a wolf of the maelstrom to be present with you, or for another PC to come to you for advice.

Compare confront someone or open your brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom:

Confront Someone
When you confront, intimidate, threaten, or bluff someone, roll+Aggro. On a 10+, they have to choose: back down and give you your way, defy you and fight back, or else submit to your mercy and ask you to reconsider. On a 7–9, you’ve left them some wiggle room, and they can try to escape, bargain with you, pass off responsibility, or divert you instead. You choose whether and how to follow through. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

AW:Burned Over: Basic Moves

Open Your Brain
When you open your brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom, roll+Weird. On any hit, the MC must tell you something new and interesting about the current situation, and might ask you a question or 2; answer them frankly. On a 10+, the MC must give you at least one good, concrete detail. On a 7–9, the MC can stick to impressions and suggestions. If you already know everything there is to know about the situation, the MC must tell you so. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

AW:Burned Over: Basic Moves

These moves also have fictional triggers — you confront, intimidate, threaten, or bluff someone, you open your brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom — but you don’t have to watch and wait for them to occur, they’re actions you can have your character take basically whenever you like.

And of course here’s an example of a move with no fictional trigger at all:

Ears in the walls: At the beginning of the session, roll+Sharp. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 2. During the session, spend your hold 1 for 1 to name a person who’s living in or visiting your holding, and ask what they’re up to right now. The MC has to answer frankly. On a miss, hold 1 anyway.

AW:Burned Over: the Lawmaker

This move has one overall nonfictional trigger, at the beginning of the session, and then nonfictional triggers for its effects during the session, spend your hold.

3. Mix & Match, or…?

Apocalypse World has moves with fictional triggers you have to watch and wait for, moves with fictional triggers you declare yourself, and moves with no fictional triggers at all.

It mostly uses “action” type moves, but does include a few “check” type moves and “save” type moves here and there.

In Apocalypse World, these distinctions aren’t important. Every move works according to its own needs, without regard to principle or precedent.

This is not true of all of Meg’s and my games, though!

In Amazons, for instance, almost all of the moves are “check” type moves. Here’s reach out in compassion, for example:

You have the power to reach out in compassion. When you do, what happens?
First, is your simple act enough to disarm, comfort, relieve, or bring peace to your counterpart?
If it’s not, then you can choose to empathize with them. Roll your heart.
On 10+, you have true insight. Ask their player a few questions; your character realizes the answers, with no need for conversation. What do you do now?
On 7–9, you have a hunch. Ask their player one question; your character realizes the answer. What do you do now?
On a miss, you’re impatient, frustrated, hurt, or baffled. What do you do?

Amazons

When you have your character reach out to someone in compassion, the first thing that happens is that your co-GMs put their heads together and decide whether just the simple act of reaching out is enough to resolve the situation. Only if it isn’t, does your action become a read-a-person type move.

Murderous Ghosts‘ moves — yes, Murderous Ghosts has moves, you only have to squint to see them — are a mix of “check” and “save” type moves, triggered by the MC:

MC: A ghost is directly approaching the other players, with its full attention upon them. Describe it. Tell the players to do the following:

Players: What about it still seems most human to you?
• Its anger.
• Its eyes.
• Its fear.
• Its movements.
• Its sorrow.
• Its voice.
You can ask the MC questions before you choose.

Draw.
13-20: Tell the MC that you don’t reach out to it in any way.
6-12: Choose 1:
• You speak to it. (What do you say?)
• You take a step toward it.
• You reach out your hand to it.
Bust: You do all 3.

Murderous Ghosts, p 16 & 17, edited

Under Hollow Hills, on the other hand, uses exclusively moves you can declare freely, yourself, as player. You throw the bones, you retreat behind thorns, you pick through the leavings, you howl for the Wild Hunt. You never have to concern yourself with setting up a fictional trigger correctly or justifying to the MC how you’re making the move you’re making. This is intentional to the design. You’re a fairy, or you’re in fairyland, or even if you’re a mortal human in the mortal human world, still, you’re fairy-free.

If you find yourself designing a game with only watch-for-it fictional triggers, or with mostly “save” type moves, or with a whole bunch of moves that the GM calls for instead of the player, don’t flinch, hesitate, or stall. Your game knows what it needs.

And Remember…

Goal: Create a Playable Outline
Cycle: Outline, Play & Revise, Full Draft
* Game design means iteration.
* The first step is to create something you can try.
* Is PbtA your final goal? Could be, could be not.

Thanks for reading!

Next up in Part 6, I’m going to use an Ursula K. LeGuin quote — you probably already know the one — as an outline for alternative models to Apocalypse World’s model of conflict.

Author:

He / him.

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