As part of Twitter’s Move Month (a joyous bit of fun by the crew at Stop, Hack, and Roll), I’ve been pondering a lot on the presentation of what we consider to be a Powered By The Apocalypse move. This came to a head when I was doing the last pass for our latest Hard Move Ep, in which the hilarious and insightful Misha B brought me a move from The Watch. Long story short, for those who don’t listen to The Hard Move (seriously? But you’re here?) we discussed Surrender to Weariness, which is a move that when you mark four boxes on your Weary track, you roll a harm-esque move that decides what that weariness means. And something about it stuck with me, but in a way I couldn’t put into words when discussing with Misha.
The question comes down to basic move construction, and a big part of why I love PbtA moves. Fictional input -> Mechanical Input -> Mechanical Output -> Fictional Output. That is: When you “do a thing”, we make decisions with dice or mechanics, then those mechanics tell us how the story unfolds (to some degree or another). An example is the Driver’s Reputation from AW2e: “When you meet someone important” (Fictional input),
“Roll+COOL” (Mechanical input),
“On a hit” (mechanical output)
“they’ve heard of you, and you say what they’ve heard. The MC has them respond accordingly.” (Fictional output).
“On a 10+, you take +1 Forward for dealing with them as well” (Mechanical output, fictionalised through play).
“On a miss” (Mechanical output)
“they’ve heard of you, but the MC decides what they’ve heard” (fictional output).
This move unfolds in a way of passing from fuzzy fiction through mechanics into more codified fiction, at each step demanding players and the social part of play guides the fuzziness. Cloud, to dice, and back, always bouncing between players. And while this structure is solid, it’s not what every move needs. A great example of a move that doesn’t want for this movement through dice and rolls is the Fighter’s Merciless move from Dungeon World:
“When you deal damage, deal +1d4 damage” (where this move simply wants to offer a mechanical point-of-difference)
or the Fighter’s Blacksmith move:
“When you have access to a forge, you can graft the magical powers of a weapon onto your signature weapon” (which offers the player fictional permission to engage with the world differently).
In each of these cases, resolving via dice can introduce concerns that the game doesn’t want to be there. Notably, the generation of multiple fictional outcomes where one is desired. And this is where the nature of Surrender to Weariness makes me wonder if it’s beholden to a format with which it need not engage.
The fictional output of Surrender to Weariness is singular: you distance yourself from others. The roll speaks on to the mechanics of with whom you lose Camaraderie. That question is never driven by the fiction, it is only ever driven by the mechanical rolls. If Lyshe, my bear, loses her shit at the Pasac (“you’re wounded AGAIN. We always have to protect you, and you always get yourself into trouble. Why can’t you just act like a grown up and spot yourself for once!”), it doesn’t matter that Lemni is somewhere off gathering food or having a smoke. Instead, on a 7-9, Lemni is my highest Camaraderie, and so she is the one with whom my relationship is unilaterally affected. The obvious answer here is for players to fictionalise that connection then, right? I know it’s Lemni I’m losing it with, so I should angle the fiction of the move toward her, except that then we’re not having mechanics follow fiction, we’re demanding fiction justify mechanisms. To use our examples above, it would be like The Driver demanding a roll, scoring a hit, and then demanding the MC introduce someone important for that role to execute against. Instead of that move being a response to fiction as it stands, it would then be a generator of fiction itself, in a way that I’m not sure it structurally needs to be. Surrender to Weariness, as this fiction generating machine, is a roll that occurs in a kind of mechanical bubble, never looping back to the cloud of established fiction until the move is over. And…that’s kind of why I wonder if it’s a little too tied up in it’s mechanics to really be asking for players to focus on fictionalisation. For a game so focused on clarity of expression of purpose, it is an uncomfortably unwieldy move.
Regardless, The Watch is a 2017(?) game that I haven’t played, written by someone who I don’t know. From what I have heard from people I respect, it’s a game that functions exceptionally well at what it does, and my concerns with Surrender to Weariness are probably unnecessary to say the least. But I think it’s a good time to talk about moves that don’t need to be super mechanically complex. There’s a beauty in moves that exist only to give fictional or mechanical permission. My favourite move of all time right now is Apocalypse World 2e’s NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH (“In battle, you count as a small gang”). It’s a beautiful synthesis of mechanics and fiction that brings a degree of control and power to the character, while meeting AW2e’s need to solve absolutely nothing. Now you can fight that biker gang on your own with no backup. So go do it. It holds enough implicit threat without demanding we split the game off to roll in different ways. It needs only one fictional outcome: You are a powerhouse.
In reading Move Month (and I do love Move Month), I’m seeing so many moves that are 10+, 7-9, 6-, and sure it’s a great format, but like…play in a different space. Ask yourself, between now and day 10, what does it mean to take this move that demands a roll and generates outcomes and turn it into a single expression of purpose? How would it impact the world around this move if it were to be less of a challenge, and more of a permission slip?