This is the first of a likely series of pieces called “The Snowball”, further thoughts on Powered By The Apocalypse that comes from my recordings of PbtA Podcast The Hard Move.
Just under a month ago I released an episode on In-Brain Puppet Strings, in which Paddy and I discuss what we feel to be the core of Apocalypse World’s Brainer playbook. In it, I hit upon a sticking point that we never really got to unpack, and so I wanted to delve further into some thoughts on PbtA design, away from the need to have sharp edited content for a podcast. For those of you delving in this deep, I am glad to invite you in.
In-Brain Puppet Strings and My Sticking Point
To begin, we have to engage the DB rule and discuss what In-Brain Puppet Strings means in the text.
In short: when you have the space and time to do weird brain-y stuff to someone, you can implant a command in their head. If they do it, your power over them goes away. If they don’t do it (or, if you just feel like it) you can deal 1 harm to them, or give them -1 on whatever they’re doing. As Paddy said, it gives you, as the Brainer, the ability to “take away what they want”. At the same time as I was editing Paddy’s episode, I was also uploading my episode with Luke Jordan wherin we discuss another super weird move that spans the Psychic Maelstrom of Mindweirdness that is so prominent in Apocalypse World, and, as a final cherry on this 2e sundae, I had earlier discussed Going Aggro with Adrian Thoen.
These discussion raised a bunch of tiny questions in me, but it all came back to a single Big Question for PbtA play and design: Do we want PbtA Moves to be a single sprawling ocean, covering all of our play, or a series of unconnected puddles in which we can splash?
An Ocean of Aggro
Go Aggro, as a move, covers a very clear interaction between people: Tell them what you want, and what happens if they don’t do it. The response is then handed to the threatened party, who can (depending on the mechanical limits of the roll) comply, take what consequences come, or run a series of deescalations that may or may not be fictionally appropriate. The big question raised by my discussions with Paddy is “okay, so why isn’t In-Brain Puppet Strings just a different version of going aggro?” In this case, what you want is the command, and what you’ll do is the threat of 1- or 3-Harm AP (or an untimely -1 or -3). There’s a few little questions that pop up around this like “Can a Brainer without I-BPS use their Weirdness to do AP Harm?” or “Can a Brainer interfere across time and distance via the Psychic Maelstrom?” If the answer to both of these questions is yes, because it’s fictionally or mechanically functional, then where does that leave I-BPS as a move, especially in the context of going aggro?
The nature of Apocalypse World’s fiction is that so many things are left unsaid, either to be decided at your table or to intentionally evoke a “fruitful void” (DB rule: the fruitful void is the idea of “what the mechanics aren’t saying”, which gives us a chance to express those things through play). But if we assume that any of those things are true, then there’s a follow-up question: Why do we need a move to reinforce what the fiction already allows? And this is where we get to Direct-Brain Whisper Projection
There’s a quick question here that I want you to ask yourself having read that move: Can a Brainer who has not chosen the Direct-Brain Whisper Projection move use their mind as a weapon? Just consider it and put a pin in it.
Now, this is really where the mechanics around Brainers going aggro start to fall apart for me. If a Brainer has In-Brain Puppet Strings, and “gently reminds” someone that they have the hold, are they not interacting with Go Aggro without going aggro? They’re making a clear threat, with stakes and demands. What is the fundamental difference between using each of these four moves discretely, and just having a strong fiction-driven interpretation of the basic moves? This approach, where each move is a puddle and we choose which ones to jump into with both feet, provides a whole lot of fun (there’s a reason I’m choosing the puddle metaphor), but it leaves us with no depth. Once we’ve splashed around in In-Brain Puppet Strings, will we not wish we had the mechanical depth of Go Aggro, or the backlash consequences of Interfere?
My friend Ash McAllan has a great thread of tweets about how granular mechanics have two different roles: Firstly they’re granular in the moment (ie we mechanically resolve In-Brain Puppet Strings differently to Go Aggro), but secondly they allow us to talk about and think about the fiction in more granular ways simply by existing. I’ve spoken before on The Hard Move about how moves “change the conversation” when they’re options. In this case, the granularity of In-Brain Puppet Strings requiring intimacy, time, and at least some level of implied submission, shifts our fictional explanation of those moments to focus on those requirements. Were we to broaden our interpretation of Go Aggro, there’d be no need for the Brainer’s operating table in the secure bunker, nor the ritualistic warboy ceremony. One could simply “plant a command” via Go Aggro in normal conversations/situations. There is a strict difference then, in my experience, between moves that generate granularity by demanding things of players, and moves that remove that granularity. For example, the Brainer’s own Unnatural Lust Transfixion which allows them to seduce/manipulate with +weird instead of +hot. This move offers no change to the fiction, the structure, or the approaches player take toward the game, it simply changes a stat. And yeah, I mean, sure, that may change the fictional description of the action, but not in any way that feels “meaty”.
Puddles, then, offer us a way to navigate around the waters of play without the crushing infinity of oceans. This is a thing I experience a lot in poorly designed trad and OSR games, where the game wants to stay out of the way of players: “use your imagination”, the GM tells me, “what would your character do?”
“Uh” I look down at my sheet. I have a +10 to shoot bows. “Shoot…a bow….at it?”
The GM sighs. I was told there were no wrong answers but apparently I found it.
“Roll it then”, and the D20 clacks away.
Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle without something against which to anchor myself. I need something to kick against to decide my character, especially for introductory play. In PbtA that’s the expressive nature of moves, in OSR that’s the setting and where my character finds context within it. While I understand the intent of supportive “You’re doing fine, hon, just say whatever you want”, it doesn’t provide me with meaningful bounds within which to employ myself. That’s the issue with Oceans of player action, it provides too much space, and no tools with which to navigate it.
The other problem with Oceans of action, and this is the one that I hear expressed most clearly as a frustration of Dungeon World, is that as the “big name” PbtA is designed, player options tend to migrate from Oceans to Puddles. Go Aggro is, by design, a large Ocean of a move. It even, in text, says that it might be too big for every situation, and that among all those 7-9 options, players should constrain themselves to “the fiction”. Yet, the moves that players choose as they develop become more specific, where Direct-Brain Whisper Projection states that your weapon is only ever 1-harm (AP), or how In-Brain Puppet Strings reduces the negotiation of demands, threats, reaction down to an implanted command.
Dungeon World and Shrinking Options
The collapsing of options, and how that presents to the player, is where I often hear the most frustration from people who are bouncing off PbtA’s approach to Oceans and Puddles. Defy Danger is the Ocean here, and Bend Bars the Puddle. Bend Bars Lift Gates is a hyperspecific move for the Fighter, it is to be used when an obstacle presents some sort of threat, and the Fighter chooses to use their strength to overcome it. The problem only becomes clear when we review the interaction between Go Aggro and Direct-Brain Whisper Projection.
If, before, when you first read the Whisper Projection move, you decided that a Brainer is required to have the move in order to directly use their mind as a weapon, then we run into a core problem with Bend Bars: No one but the Fighter can use strength to destroy an inanimate obstacle. The move is specific and exclusionary, in the same way we thought Whisper Projection was: You need the move to do the thing, so, for example, the bulky Orc Cleric of the Forge God cannot use his strength to snap a door from its hinges. Being chased by a barreling Boar-Dragon through a narrow corridor, blocked by a sturdy gate? Too bad. You cannot use Defy Danger to “act despite that imminent threat” because there is a move on ANOTHER playbook, that is for this moment. This version of events is usually brought up regarding Volley (shoot with a ranged weapon) vs the Ranger’s Called Shot (attacking a specific part of the enemy from some advantage). The presence of Called Shot precludes the use of Volley to make called shots.
If, before, when you read the Whisper Projection move, you decided that a Brainer is not required to have the move in order to directly use their mind as a weapon, then we run into a core problem with Defy Danger: If other moves exist with overlap, why the fuck do we need this move in all its breadth? Or the other moves at all? Of COURSE our Forge Cleric Grug Lurrgur can wrench the gate open, he’s 140kg of muscle. And yeah, there’s a threat, so on a 7-9 there’s some consequence or choice. EASY PEASY. Why are we so worried about it all. In fact, why do we have Hack and Slash (meet an enemy in melee combat) when Defy Danger can fit it perfectly as well? “I dodge under his sword thrusts and stab him in the side”, well, shit are we defying danger, or are we hacking and slashing? This version of events is usually brought up regarding specific moves like the Rogue’s Connections (put out into the street that you’re after something and you’ll get a lead) when compared to broader basic moves like Defy Danger +CHA.
In the end Oceans can leave us a drift, and Puddles can only be splashed in for so long.
Islands – Where Moves Dare to Tread
Important now that we recognise what happens when moves don’t come into the conversation. in our Puddles and Oceans metaphor, this is the islands or pieces of land between those bodies of water. In PbtA, this is that diamond “Do they give the GM a golden opportunity”. There are three times where the MC makes a move: Golden opportunity (which, DB rule, means that the fiction presents an opportunity for something to go wrong. Eg “I walk up to the dragon and start climbing on it”); when everyone looks at you (the GM) to see what happens; or a 6- on move. The nature of this interaction is that it’s fiction being thrown at fiction: “I put my hands against the door and try to listen to what’s on the other side” doesn’t have a move, but the GM responds with “you hear the scuffling of twenty feet [foreshadowing future badness]” or “you can hear ritualistic chanting. You might be able to make out the words if you listen long enough [offer an opportunity with a cost]”. The nature of this interaction means that a) players are not constrained to actions within moves, and b) because of the way GM moves are written, GMs will always be bringing play back to the genre the game wants to be.
In the conversation we’re having, what this means is that actions outside of the moves is a valid option, and the game has structures for it. Structures that support player engagement. So why do our basic moves have to cover SO MUCH ground, why do we start with oceans and move to puddles?
Especially because, in Trad RPGs (especially with Vancian magic), it’s the other way around. Wizards start with two spells or whatever, and they have clearly defined bounds. As we advance, we can take more and more until we’re ended up with a massive toolkit. Some of those final spells can be “wish-like” in that they need not comply with the boundaries of the earlier spells. Imagine a Dungeon World where the basic move for combat was “bear the brunt of an attack”
When you are a victim of a melee attack, roll+Con,
on a 7-9 choose one:
Open an opportunity for an ally,
Cut the damage in half,
Discharge an item, spell, or skill to avoid the damage entirely.
on a 10+ choose one from above, and one from below:
You avoid the damage entirely,
You strike back,
Your ally gets an opportunity with +1 Forward.
On a 6-, prepare for the worst.
This move then lets us open out to more specific actions. Rogues get a move for “Dodging blows”, Fighters get moves for “striking first”, Wizards get moves for wards or interrupting other’s attacks.
For our Go Aggro example, we could reframe its fiction: “When you show someone the barrel of your gun, and a demand to go with it, roll+HARD”. Then other moves can connect that tiny puddle of fiction into a sprawling ocean. Maybe you don’t need a gun. Maybe you can threaten them with your brain and roll+Weird. Maybe you can threaten people over time and distance. “I know a guy: When you Go Aggro, you can use people who have DEBT to you as if they were a gun barrel”. Slowly, as play grows, the moves that are picked up by players begin to connect, the puddles opening up, forming oceans between them. But by the time the player is adrift on an ocean of choices, they have built themselves up, learning all the way, “leveling up as a player”. They have charted the ocean before they even begin to sail upon it.