A Rant about the Free-Form Nature of PbtA

Forewarning: This blog offers little to none explanatory text. If you are not a roleplayer with some understanding of the PbtA ruleset, I can not promise that you will gain much from this. 🙂

One criticism I have read on more than one occasion, including from friends, is that Apocalypse World and its Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset is restrictive to game masters. To which I only have to say:

WHAT?

The idea behind this criticism is that the “Move” structure for game masters feels like a list of actions to pick from. When you are in a scene, you look at the list, decide to “Split the party”, “Inflict Harm” or “Herald the Abyss”, and narrate something according to the theme laid out in that Move. If you are not allowed to narrate events without following this list of Moves, then I would agree that the system is restrictive. Luckily, this is not the case.

Now, a disclaimer before I go further. This is my interpretation of Powered by the Apocalypse and how to use it. There may certainly be more gamified versions of PbtA than Kult: Divinity Lost or Monsterhearts 2, but to me making a truly gamified list of Moves for the GM to pick from misses the point of why Moves are great.

The Moves are not a list of actions. The Moves represent actions that fall within the theme of the game. When the GM looks at the list of Moves, their mentality ought not be to pick from the list. The list is there to inspire and guide the GM to tell a story consistent with the game’s vision and themes. This is why the GM never rolls dice. They should never be restricted to rules such as rolling dice or picking options from a chart. You are a storyteller, and the game system allows you to be that. When you are a GM in a PbtA game, you can do anything. The Moves are there to remind you that you shouldn’t, and that you should stick to the theme set forward by the game.

Certain Moves directly influence the players’ game stats, such as Deal Damage. The existence of Moves like these reinforces this idea, that the GM decides everything that goes into the story. If they weren’t allowed to do anything they liked, then Enjure Injury would cover all instances where a PC was about to take damage. Instead, the GM is allowed to decide whether the players have an chance to escape or not. Sometimes, you are just going to get hurt. These Moves exist to ensure that the GM doesn’t just have full narrative control, but full mechanical control as well.

Let us take a closer look at this, just to fully show what I mean. The GM has several Moves that influence the Harm and Damage mechanics. Here is a comprehensive rundown.

  • Harm Move. The GM can announce that a character is receiving Harm. The player can then Avoid Harm, and/or Endure Injury. This is the weaker Move the GM can make, and gives the affected player multiple reasonable chances to escape.
  • Exchange Harm for Harm. The GM can announce that a character is receiving Harm, but gets to deal some Harm back in exchange. This is mostly identical to the above, except the GM acknowledges the player’s intent to be an active combatant and offers them a mechanical opportunity for it.
  • Deal Damage. The GM can, should they desire, announce that a character is taking Damage. By doing this, the GM circumvents the regular mechanics for taking damage in favor of telling their story the way they think it should go. It is a very hard Move, but it exists because sometimes, a player should simply be given a Critical Injury.

The fact that GMs have the option of either inflicting Harm (which allows for player response) or inflicting Damage (which does not), I find illustrates this point. The GM decides what happens, and the GM decides whether the players get a say in it.

Enough about mechanics, let us talk about the primary motive of GM Moves: Controlling the story’s narrative and themes. Kult: Divinity Lost provides a very clear example as to why Moves are not to be treated as a list to pick from, but rather as inspiration for your own narration. There are a lot of Moves in KDL. So many, in fact, that they take up basically the entire GM Screen, and it still doesn’t cover all the Moves listed in the rulebook.

So what do all of these Moves do? Let’s first look at a few “core” Moves, and Move on from there.

  • Take their stuff. Choose something that the PCs possess, and take it away from them. By some means.
  • Capture someone. Introduce an obstacle, anything, that keeps a PC in place. What is it? You decide.
  • Announce off-screen problems. Describe something that’s happening outside the PCs reach or vision. It can be anything.

Well that’s incredibly vague and non-specific, isn’t it? If you were to pick Moves as though they were a list of actions to take, you would still be forced to do a lot of leg work in working the outcome of the Move into the fiction. It would be easier to just describe what happens and not even look at these Move. Let’s Move on to some more exotic Moves.

  • Distortion of Time and Space. Move a mentally ill person somewhere else, or send them on a trip in time.
  • Life in the Ruins. When in Metropolis, introduce a living being to encounter or hint at.
  • Leave Traces. When a PC travels between dreams, they leave a trace behind for another entity to find.

These are just as vague as the core Moves, except they come with some condition – the player is close to some other realm of existence, or is dreaming, or perhaps has a low Stability. The exact nature of when these requirements are fulfilled are left up to the GM, which in essence makes their triggers entirely arbitrary. The GM can choose to perform a Move like the ones above at any time they like, if they feel it fits the current fiction.

This is the first point of what I want to talk about – if the Move fits the fiction, the GM may make it. The specifics deliberately do not matter, because the story is yours to tell, not the book’s. You can trigger the Inferno Move Shadows of the Past when the player is deep within Astaroth’s Citadel, or when they look into a cracked mirror in a particularly vile bathroom in the basement below a filthy strip club. Do not look at the Moves and think that you can only do something scary if some specific condition applies. You can always be scary, and you always should be.

Before I get on to the second, more important point, let us go back to our enormous, really ridiculously long list of Moves. It is time to look at the Moves presented for cults and entities, because they are extremely important. Vital, even.

  • Create living dead (The Tomb Guardian).
  • Unflinching conviction (Prophets of the Third Temple).
  • Call for worshippers (Cairath).
  • Invoking dream beings (The Stillwater Collective).

These are Moves that just appear in the book. They have no additional description, no extra text to explain what they mean, and no way to look up clarifications. The GM simply has to decide what these Moves mean, and narrate the fiction accordingly. There are dozens of these Moves in the core book, maybe over a hundred, and more are added when flipping through The Black Madonna and Taroticum. There is no reasonable way that a GM could ever look at these Moves and decide ‘which to do’. They are not written to let you do that.

The point is, and this is why these Moves are presented the way they are, that the Moves do not matter. Repeat it with me: The Moves do not matter.

You are not expected to use the Moves as a reference point. They are built to be generally applicable narrative elements and storytelling techniques that guide you along your way as you create the story of your game. “GM makes a Move” is a rules text that could just as well state “The Story Continues”, because that is all you are doing. You are urged to continue the story. If you want inspiration for how to tell a story with certain elements of the Kult mythos, read through the Moves that apply to that part of the Mythos. If you have a cool idea and want to work out the best way to present it, create some new Moves as a note to yourself. Moves are not there for you to point at them and go “I split the party”. They are the starting point. They are just there so that you remember to tell a good story.

I hope, dearly hope, that what I have written here is already common knowledge and that I have just been unlucky when discussing AW hacks in the past. If it is not, please let me know if you found this an interesting or eye opening read. And if it turns out that this all looks like mad ravings to you, tell me that too. I am trying to improve my writing.