AW’s dirty secret: you can say anything

As part of my endless quest to spend every waking moment of my life obsessing about game design, I have spent some time analysing the MC moves in Apocalypse World. And here’s what I learned: what at first looks like a long and fairly complex list of options could actually be boiled down to “say something, anything”.

Ok, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ll explain in a moment. But let’s take a look at the basic moves (i.e. those which don’t come from a front).

  1. Announce future badness, announce offscreen badness. This translates to “tell us something bad is happening, or about to happen”. Obviously, it also has to be something the players weren’t previously aware of, else it isn’t announcing, obvs. Minor subtlety: it has to be badness. Bad for whom? The game doesn’t specify, and at times it makes it clear that moves don’t have to be against the players, they can be against anyone. If that applies here too, then this is truly a flexible set of moves indeed – announce anything that could be bad for someone. In that case, I could just write “QED” here and be done. It probably doesn’t apply here, though.
  2. Offer an opportunity (with or without a cost), tell the consequences and ask. This translates to “tell us something that might happen depending on what we do next”. Now, a particular corollary of this, combined with the “be honest” rule is that whatever that something is, it will definitely happen as described unless someone acts appropriately. So this move boils down to “say what is about to happen and then do it unless someone stops it”. Already we have the basis for essentially anything to happen.
  3. Remember that all the previous four moves can be used with just about any time period attached. Future badness could mean “in the next five seconds” or “in a year’s time”.
  4. Put them in a spot. This translates to “make something bad happen”, more or less. Ok, perhaps it’s a bit more specific – it implies they’re going to have difficult choices to make or challenges to overcome. But that pretty much boils down to “make something bad happen”.
  5. Capture them, separate them, take away their stuff, inflict harm (as established), trade harm for harm (as established), turn their move back on them. Obviously, these are much more specific. The harm moves are the system’s means to link what the MC says to the harm system, and to prevent the MC from just killing a PC (the principles prevent you doing that anyway, but this bit of system reinforces it). The others  are more-or-less just specific examples of someone being put in a spot i.e make something bad happen.
  6. Make them buy. This is just a sub-type of offering an opportunity and/or telling the consequences. It amounts to a prompt to think about barter and other such trade/negotiation.

So essentially everything can be boiled down to “say what might be about to happen” or “make something bad happen”. This looks like it rules out nice things happening, but of course it doesn’t – if you offer an opportunity and someone takes it, something nice will happen. But clearly, for the most part, nice stuff is there to prompt the characters to action so they can get the nice stuff.

So this is maybe not quite just “say anything”, but it’s pretty close. It’s extremely close – maybe indistinguishable from – “say anything that the players won’t want to ignore”. (This seems jolly close to the Dogs in the Vineyard formula, from the same game designer of “do something they can’t ignore” when engaging in conflict.)

What’s my point? Well, mostly it’s just a bit of analysis I did, and I felt like writing it up. But it matters to me because, when I first started playing PbtA games, I remember staring at the moves list when it was my turn to act. Blinded by the sheer range of options. Paralysed, at times. But in practice, if I’d just fallen back on the principles and said something – anything – that the players would be expected to give a damn about, it would probably be fulfilling one of the moves.

I think the AW moves list is probably intended to function as a prompt, to help MCs mentally brainstorm their options in the few seconds before they open their mouth. Occasionally I think I’d find that useful. But I think for the most part I’ll just be saying the first thing that comes to mind, in future. I’m pretty sure I’ll end up sticking to the rules as I do so.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

4 thoughts to “AW’s dirty secret: you can say anything”

  1. This is pure gold, thanks for sharing.
    I’ve been struggling with the AW MC moves for a while now, trying to simplify them to a manageable list of options, but this makes it so much easier.
    Actually I’d push your analysis just one bit forward and say: “Keep the world in motion around the players” – which basically comes from the principle that there is no status quo in AW.
    The players may ignore what’s unchanging, so the MC has to make sure that the situation is changing around them all the time – this is my key takeaway from all this.

  2. Someone linked me to this as part of a conversation on reddit, and I thought I might add that I think you’re missing two things that the MC moves do:

    1. They force you to think about why you’re responding the way you are – about what it will do to the narrative/game. Your response has to do something. Many GMs, especially newer GMs, just sort of “wing it”, and they end up offering a lot of responses that don’t actually do anything, and you get that aimless, meandering play where the PCs don’t really have anything obvious to contend with. When the PCs bust down a door and it’s your turn to say what’s on the other side, if you make a move and then say “what do you do?”, the action gets going immediately. If you describe a room with some paintings, a fountain, etc. and then say “what do you do?”, you’re going to get that slow, tentative exploration while they figure out what, if anything, is important – even if the fountain has some special mechanism in it, play is going to be halting until the exploratory phase ends and they transition into dealing with what they found. That’s fine for some games, but that’s not what AW wants.

    2. Insofar as the list of MC moves covers “anything”, the fact that it splits “anything” into categories is significant. Splitting “anything” into categories helps for brainstorming, reminds you of possibilities you might miss due to narrative tunnel-vision, and implicitly pushes you to sample the list a bit more evenly.

    Imagine you give a GM a copy of AW without the MC moves and tell them to just “say anything”, and then after the game you categorize everything they did into the list of moves. Some of it won’t fit because what they were saying didn’t actually do much (and if you kept track, you’d probably find that gameplay tended to slow down a lot and player focus tended to drift around those times). But what you’d probably also see is that the vast majority of what they said fell under only two or three MC moves. They never “split them up”. They never “took away their stuff”. They never “turned their move back on them”.

    I’m certainly not saying that you should use all the MC moves equally, but having them listed out gives you a useful little nudge in that direction.

    Like the book says, there are GMs who don’t really need the MC rules, who already think about why they’re saying what they’re saying and what impact it will have, who avoid responding in ways that cause the game to stall out, and who have a natural variety in the character of their responses. But I don’t think that’s most or even many GMs. It’s certainly fewer than the number of GMs who *think* they can’t use the help.

    Personally, I thought I knew better on two separate occasions. When I first tried GMing AW, I read the MC moves and thought basically what’s in this post, and so decided I didn’t need to reference them. When, as an experiment, I tried referencing them, the game immediately became much better. Later, I thought I had internalized them sufficiently and didn’t really need to think about them so purposefully. I decided to try the same experiment again after a while of that, and lo and behold, even after GMing many sessions purposefully referencing the MC moves before setting them aside, the game was much better as soon as I went back to deliberately referencing them. Certainly my experience may not be universal, but I think it’s easy to overlook just how strong a tool the MC moves really are.

  3. @moduspwnens I’d absolutely agree that the Moves can be helpful, to the right person. But I don’t think they’re unfailingly so either.

    “Say anything” could lead to a lot of damp squibs, but “say anything the players give a damn about” shouldn’t (if you are any good at guessing what they’ll give a damn about, at least). On the other hand, “separate them” could easily be a damp squib too. As could “take away their stuff”, a Move which all too easily makes the game frustrating rather than fun. Any of the Moves could be a really bad choice, if badly chosen, which is why the Moves aren’t a magic bullet.

    The bit which makes sure you’re not shooting damp squibs is the Agenda and Principles. They give a much clearer account (to me) of what you’re meant to be doing, and once internalised the risk that if you “say anything” you’ll end up stalling out the game massively reduces.

    So yeah – use the Moves, if you find them helpful. Personally, I find they make my brain freeze, so I tend not to – but that’s just me.

    By the way, something I didn’t mention in the article but seems relevant is the Threat Moves. I find these so much more helpful! They’re specific and evocative where the basic moves are bland and general. They don’t make my brain freeze at all, they leap out with exciting possibilities. Again, just me, may not be true for everyone.

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