Using Apocalypse World to Outline and Draft Your Own RPG
Here in Part 8, I’m sharing six tricks, my six best and most reliable techniques, for drafting interesting moves.
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Here’s the problem.
You might think of this as the basic basic move in PbtA games:
When you do something, like, chancy, roll. On a 10+, you get what you hoped for. On a 7-9, you get what you hoped for, but less, or at a cost, or something. On a miss, you don’t get what you hoped for, and maybe it’s even worse than that.
(It isn’t, in fact, the basic basic move, there’s no such thing, but I can see where you’d think of it that way.)
The problem is, this is just one move. It’s super basic, and it’s unsuitable for almost all of the circumstances you might need a move for.
How do you create suitable moves instead?
Here are my six weird tricks.
1. Buy the player in against the character.
Also known as, “if taking damage were bad for you, you wouldn’t want to do it!”
The idea is to make a character’s bad experiences palatable or even beneficial to their player. In a game like Apocalypse World, you want the characters to suffer as well as triumph, so you want the players to take the bad with the good. This means that you have to find ways for the characters to suffer without making their players chumps for going along with it. Your character suffering = you’re playing smart and well, vs, in many other games, your character suffering = you’re playing poorly.
This approach to writing moves and to game design in general runs counter to “I am my character” sensibilities. It might feel wrong. It might take some getting used to.
Anyhow Apocalypse World does this when someone seduces or manipulates you, with the carrot: “go along with me even though you don’t want to, and you get to mark experience.” It does it when your life becomes untenable, when you get to come back with +1weird or a new playbook.
Here’s a specific example move:
Lay out a plan: When you lay out a plan, roll+Sharp. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 2. Over the course of executing the plan, you or any other PC can spend 1 of your hold to get +1 to any roll, to inflict +1harm, or to suffer -1harm. On a miss, hold 1, but tell the MC that if it matters, it takes you a long time to work your plan out.AW:Burned Over: the Vigilant
The move buys the other players into following your plan by offering them nice little bonuses to do so.
2. Change when you roll the dice…
…Relative to the decisions you make.
You can write the die roll into a move at any point from its start to its finish, at any point between the decision to make the move and the final outcome. This means that you get to closely control what’s in the players’ control and what’s out of it.
Here are examples that show some of the possibilities.
Eye on the door: name your escape route and roll+cool. On a 10+, you’re gone. On a 7-9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind or take something with you, the MC will tell you what. On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.Apocalypse World: the Driver
In this move you name your escape route before you roll; it’s easy to imagine a version where you roll first, and name your escape route only on a hit.
Off the leash: whenever you’re about to do something you don’t always do, turn to the person who holds your leash. Ask them:Apocalypse World: the Show
• Do I think you’d be cool with this?
If you do think they’d be cool with it, then no problems. If you don’t think they would, you can do it anyway if you want, but first roll+hot. On a 10+, cool, carry on. On a 7-9, they can choose to erase one of your stat highlights, as though they’d hit you with seduce or manipulate and given you the stick. On a miss, they don’t hold your leash anymore. Choose someone else to hold it (whether they want to or not).
In this move, you go through a whole process before you roll: decide what you’re going to do, judge whether its something you always do or not, and get the other player’s input on whether you think they’d be cool with it. Only then, and only if the answers line up the right way, do you go to the dice.
Dangerous presence: When you enter into a situation, roll+Aggro. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7-9, choose 1:AW:Burned Over: the Volatile
• If I have any enemies here, they put their hands to their weapons. Ask the MC who does.
• If I have any enemies here, they freeze and try to make themselves inconspicuous. Ask the MC who does.
• If anybody here wants or needs my help, even if they don’t dare signal me, they look relieved to see me. Ask the MC who does.
• If I have any allies here, they make eye contact with me. Ask the MC who does.
On a miss, if you have any enemies here, they immediately move against you.
In this move, you don’t do anything before you roll, except enter into a situation. All of your decisions come after the roll.
Loyal: Get to WorkThe Unnamed World
When you get to work, tell the MC what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it. Ask them what you can accomplish on a 10+ hit and what you can accomplish on a 7-9 hit, then roll your Loyal. On a 10+ hit or a 7–9 hit, that’s what you accomplish. Pass the initiative to someone else while you’re working, and you get it back when you’ve finished your work.
On a miss, ask the MC what goes wrong instead.
In this move, your entire discussion with the GM comes before your roll, and other than passing the initiative, which happens in this game at the end of every move, there are no decisions to make after the roll at all.
3. Hand over decision-making.
Every move’s a question: who asks it, and who answers it?
One conventional interpretation of PbtA moves goes like this: “In general, on a 10+, you decide. On a miss, the GM decides. On a 7-9, you compromise with the GM.” While there are moves that work this way, of course, it’s not the general rule and it hardly covers the possibilities.
For any given move in action, there might be, let’s say, six different parties who can make decisions:
- The player making the move.
- The GM.
- The other player who’s involved, if there is one (the GM for NPCs, another player for other PCs).
- A specific other player who isn’t involved with the move.
- The other players who aren’t involved, collectively.
- The entire table, including the uninvolved players, the GM, and the involved players all.
You can completely change the quality of a decision by changing who makes it. Think of it as, whose best interests does the move treat as paramount? Whose does it weigh?
The crystal-clear example in Apocalypse World is going aggro:
When you go aggro on someone, roll+hard. On a 10+ hit, they have to choose 1:Apocalypse World
• Force your hand and suck it up.
• Cave and do what you want.
On a 7-9 hit they can choose 1 of the above, or 1 of the following:
• Get the hell out of your way.
• Barricade themselves securely in.
• Give you something they think you want, or tell you what you want to hear.
• Back off calmly, hands where you can see.
On a miss, be prepared for the worst.
When you put a gun in someone’s face, they, not you, decide whether you pull the trigger.
You can see the difference between 2 and 3 in the difference between reading a situation vs reading a person:
When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC
questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3.
On a 7–9, ask 1:
• Where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• Which enemy is the biggest threat?
• What should I be on the lookout for?
• What’s my enemy’s true position?
• Who’s in control here?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.
When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll+sharp. On a 10+, hold 3.Apocalypse World
On a 7–9, hold 1. While you’re interacting with them, spend your hold to ask their
player questions, 1 for 1:
• Is your character telling the truth?
• What’s your character really feeling?
• What does your character intend to do?
• What does your character wish I’d do?
• How could I get your character to —?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.
When you read a situation, the GM always answers, as the person who has the widest perspective. When you read a person, the person who knows the answers gives them: the GM for NPCs and the other players for their PCs.
Apocalypse World makes a lot of use of 1-3 and not much use of 4-6, but here’s a move from Under Hollow Hills that, when you choose, calls on the entire table:
When you call someone closer, roll. On any hit, tell your victim that you’reUnder Hollow Hills: Dracula
calling them to come close to you, and have them choose their answer from
the list below. On a 10+ hit, in addition, however you decide to play them
next, take +1 to your roll.
• I come to you eagerly.
• I come to you in dread.
• I come to you, but because you’ve invited me, not because I must.
• I open doors for you, invite you in, and await you.
• I resist your call, seeking strength in myself, in my convictions, or in my friends. [To the table:] Do I find the strength to resist?
• I’m a free creature of moonlight, earth, and wild waters, not your object to bid
and send. Come to me if you choose, I don’t come to you.
On a miss, have them choose an answer, but if they choose to come to you,
they can choose also to have their friends with them.
4. Explode the outcome into an array of options.
Apocalypse World’s design is originally based on an unfinished game of ours from back in 2002 or so, called Otherkind. You can see Otherkind’s system in our game Psi*Run or the tabletop wargame I made with Joshua A.C. Newman, Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack.
How it works is, you assemble a pool of dice, roll them, and then assign them to various outcomes, like “do I achieve my goal?” “do I get hurt?” “does anyone else get hurt?” and “do the mysterious government agents pursuing me get any closer to catching me?”
Apocalypse World follows Otherkind by having many of the moves include pick lists of partial outcomes, where your roll lets you choose x-many of them — usually, not quite as many as you’d like — to tailor your final full outcome. Seizing by force works this way, as do reading a person, reading a situation, and any number of playbook moves.
Healing touch: Put your hands on someone injured and roll+Weird. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7–9, choose 2:AW:Burned Over: the Medic
• Your touch takes their pain away.
• Your touch heals their tissue damage and stops their bleeding.
• Your touch knits their bones back together.
• Your touch removes their disease or purges their infection.
…And ask the MC whether they heal 1-harm or 2-harm. On a miss, you take their pain away, but they heal 0-harm.
5. Reverse who’s vulnerable.
This is my favorite trick for fighting systems, for instance. I love to make it so that when your character’s winning the fight, that’s when you’re most vulnerable. The moves turn the spotlight to the character who’s losing and say, “okay, you’re losing. If things continue as they are, you’re going to be beaten. What’s your angle? What curve do you throw? What’s your unexpected spike, what have you been holding in reserve? It’s your last chance, now’s the moment. How are you going to turn this around?”
Let the one who’s winning feel the uncertainty of the fight.
But naturally it works for all kinds of moves where vulnerability, risk, investment, commitment are in play. Here’s my favorite example from all of our games:
When you take someone’s breath away, roll. On any hit, your eyes meet andUnder Hollow Hills: the Nightmare Horse
they catch their breath. They can’t proceed with what they were doing until
they’ve answered you. On a 10+ hit, choose 2 of the following to say, and
you’re telling them the truth. On a 7–9 hit, choose 1.
• At this moment, for me the moon rises and sets in your eyes. Will you close
them against me?
• At this moment, at any other soul’s approach but yours, I would flee. Will you
• At this moment, no one but you may touch me in safety. Will you?
• At this moment, I will bear no one on my back but you. Will you ride me?
• At this moment, I’m wearing my silver necklace, and if you place your hand on
it, I’m yours. Will you?
• This moment is fleeting and there is no other like it. Another instant and I may
never be yours. Will you come to my arms?
On a miss, they take your breath away instead, and choose 1 against you, if
they like, or else they may dismiss you, which you may take as a cruel insult.
The Nightmare Horse is otherwise so commanding, so effortlessly gorgeous, so offputting and self-possessed, that their moment of vulnerability really does take your breath away.
6. Slide the scale of hit and miss.
All of Apocalypse World’s moves work on the thresholds of 10+, 7-9, and 6 or less. To make some moves riskier than others, you slide the scale within those threshold instead of changing. This is important because the idea of riskier is so much broader and more interesting than you can express just by nudging the thresholds up or down.
For example, here’s a “safe” move, where a 7-9 hit gives you what you need, and a 10+ hit gives you even more:
Peacemaker: when you call for two rivals or enemies to come to you and meet, to settle things between them, roll+cool. On a hit, they must both come, at the time you specify. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7–9, choose 1:Apocalypse World: the Waterbearer
• They must come alone.
• They must come unarmed.
• They must bring gifts, peace offerings, prisoners to exchange, or tokens of good will.
On a miss, they can make demands of you, and come only if you accede.
…But here’s a much worse move, where a 10+ hit means that you’re hanging in there and a 7-9 hit barely avoids catastrophe:
Pack alpha: when you try to impose your will on your gang, roll+hard. On a 10+, all 3.Apocalypse World: the Chopper
On a 7–9, choose 1:
• They do what you want (otherwise, they refuse)
• They don’t fight back over it (otherwise, they do fight back)
• You don’t have to make an example of one of them (otherwise, you must)
On a miss, someone in your gang makes a bid, idle or serious, to replace you for alpha.
…And here’s one where the hits are pretty good but the miss is brutal:
Field medic: When somebody’s suffered harm, you can help. Roll+Sharp. On any hit, you stabilize them: their injuries won’t get worse, and you can safely move them. On a 10+, they recover 1harm as well. On a miss, you see at once that there’s nothing you can do for them. Choose 1:AW:Burned Over: the Medic
• I do my best for them, even though it won’t make a difference.
• I break it to them compassionately and stay with them.
• I walk away.
In sum: drafting moves
When I sit down to draft moves, I use these techniques intentionally, almost literally by name, nearly as a checklist.
In this move…
- Do I need to buy the player in, or are they already happy to go along with it?
- Should you roll first then choose, or choose first then roll?
- Who asks and who answers?
- Is the outcome whole and indivisible, or should you build it up out of its component parts?
- Who’s vulnerable, if anybody, and should I switch it up?
- What’s the scale of hits and misses? How much should a 10+ give you, how little should a 7-9 give you, and how wrong can it go?
I don’t know if this process will work for you, but it works great for me. If you’re struggling with moves for your game, you might give it a try.
P.S. Brandon Leon-Gambetta’s Twitter thread about the structure of moves
If you haven’t already read this thread, I recommend it! Brandon lays out a lot of the common shapes of moves, a lot of moves’ structural forms. I have it bookmarked. You might find you don’t even need my tricks.
If you have any questions, I love to answer them. Hit me up, it’ll be my pleasure.
- 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?
- In Part 5, I took a quick aside to talk about some different ways that moves can fit into the conversation of play.
- In Part 6, I used an Ursula K. LeGuin quote — you probably already know the one! — as an outline for alternative models to Apocalypse World’s model of conflict.
- Part 7’s a good old-fashioned Q&A, in rounds: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3 (the lightning round!), & Q&A Round 4 (the Final Round!)
- In Part 9, upcoming, I think let’s take a nice close look at our second-best selling PbtA game, MF0: Firebrands.