A Taxonomy of Moves

So I’ve been reading the shit out of Johnstone Metzger’s Space Wurm vs Moonicorn the past few days. It’s keeping me awake, and not just because of the crazy colors. Because it’s a Dungeon World hack/campaign, it’s been making me think a hell of a lot about Moves and how all I’ve seen them work.

What follows is absolutely not a “this is how it is” post. I don’t feel like litigating any of this. I’m not telling anyone they’re running their games wrong. Good? Good.

To my mind, the first big split in how Moves are treated in the PbtA universe happened right at the Apocalypse World/Dungeon World split. I remember folks finding it hard, I think, to understand or appreciate the prescriptive/descriptive quality of AW’s Moves. Like…sometimes the player wants a thing and looks for the best button to push. So they nudge the fiction toward the things they’re good at and away from the things they’re bad at — easy enough, pretty traditional, that’s what a skill or a feat is. But sometimes it’s the GM pushing those buttons instead, right, because of some confluence of GM moves and aggregate fictional context. Some moves are more tuned to be proactive choices, some are tuned to be reactive. If you’ve got years and decades of looking at character sheets and trying to find the right skill or feat or power to use to solve a problem, that’s pretty weird stuff.

The players in my universe who don’t “get” AW don’t like the feeling the game is playing them; they’re okay with the fiction snowballing but the Moves? Triggering more Moves? Not everyone’s flavor of the day. This was a showstopper in Urban Shadows, where the snowball would keep triggering mechanical effects until the fiction was utterly beyond their sense of control.

Then you had Dungeon World (and yes, I’m bringing this back around to SWvM in a minute), which to my eyes brings the game very much back into the players’ hands. Like…I can’t think of any reactive-type moves other than Defy Danger in the suite. You’re not going to be unwittingly snowballed into Hack and Slash, say. The GM can push the Defy Danger button on your behalf (it’s basically a D&D-style saving throw at that point, right?) but you’re not really ever going to proactively push that button. Well…I guess if you do, then you’re really playing World of Dungeons instead.

Space Wurm vs Moonicorn is very much a child of the Dungeon World branch of PbtA. Besides sharing a menu of common moves with DW, all the playbooks moves are player tools. They’re resources to use, not fictional gates to pass through. That’s fine, it’s great, it’s very easy to explain that to players.

Johnstone has a whole second game kinda-sorta built into SWvM as well, and that is his quickplay rules at the end. It’s a whole second set of ultra-custom character sheets that all have the entirety of their Move selection already on the sheet. At that point you’re not playing Dungeon World with this batshit crazy setting on top of it, you’re playing the batshit crazy game as its own thing.

You know what’s keeping me awake? The fact that the quickstart Moonicorn playbook is the only one that doesn’t have a “do something dangerous” move. And that is so very interesting to me. Instead, Moonicorn has “take a stand,” and the outcomes are entirely different than everyone else’s. Of course everyone has a different “do something dangerous” move. WHY DOES THAT MATTER? I’ve been chewing on that pretty much nonstop since I went through my umpteenth reading.

Okay so let’s talk about what the fuck’s going on with Space Wurm vs Moonicorn.

The executive summary: it’s a space fantasy campaign setting for Dungeon World that summons up Jupiter Ascending, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Farscape, pretty much any of the grand sweeping good-versus-evil space adventure stories. It is very tightly tuned: there will always be a Space Wurm (ultimate evil, fixated on control) and there will always be a Moonicorn (ultimate good, fixated on freedom and revolution). The game ends when one of those two has either secured or defeated all the Fronts in the game.

The Fronts of the game have four dangers you have to overcome. There are a total of 7 broad scifi tropes (Aliens, Cybernetics/Robotics, The Empire, Space Travel, Religion…augh I don’t want to have to go look it up…um um The Spice and, damn it I had to look it up, Secret Police). The Space Wurm scratches two of them out — so, like, there might just not be any aliens or space travel, easy enough. Orrr no robots and no spice. Whatever. Space Wurm controls two of them outright at the start of play, and then the last three are the neutral Fronts to which everyone else is attached, and from which all the external threats will emerge.

There are six custom playbooks for the campaign. Besides SW and M, there’s also The Lover (torn between SW and M), the Mogul (captain of industry type), the Other (weirdness from beyond space), and the Spy (who is secretly working for one of those three neutral Fronts). You can pull in literally any other Dungeon World playbook into the game and it works, because it is still fundamentally a (space) adventure game.

There’s a mixtape for every playbook (I looked some up on Youtube, they exist!) and lots of the moves are named after songs. The whole game is very stylish and specific, at least specific to psychedelic space rock opera.

It’s most definitely a Dungeon World campaign setting and not just because of the common moves and the general moves-as-player-tools vibe. I wrote a thread about the DW dependencies, and the list is pretty long. But you know what dependency caught me the most off-guard? The fact the game uses the “Last Breath” move, formally a Dungeon World special move: instead of, you know, just being dead, it’s a bit of script immunity, maybe — you might make it out okay, you might have to make a hard bargain, you might just die. It cracked me up that Shervyn von Hoerl was shocked that I thought this was optional, but I defy you to name another PbtA game where you don’t just die. You get a Last Move in Urban Shadows, sure, but you’re still dead. Ditto AW, Sagas of the Icelanders, Night Witches, Cartel, whatever. “Last Breath” is distinctly a creature of Dungeon World.

The playbooks are all ultracustom and nothing at all like straight DW fighters or magic users or bards or whatevers. Each one has its own internal economy, many have their own take on DW-style Bonds that interact with their moves in surprising ways, and of course many, many moves that directly reference either Space Wurm or Moonicorn, because those playbooks are utterly mandatory.

Something that jumps out at me about the Move design, other than their fundamental DW-ness, is that in many cases they’re not in the typical “on a 7-9 pick 2” or “on a hit, blah” — the Lover, for example, has a move that says if someone is fascinated (a specific game state) with you, they can’t deal damage to you until you deal damage to them. It’s an absolute prohibition. Fantastic! I think those kinds of moves really constrain the fiction to this game’s specific vibe, and I’ll bet they will evoke the same “but the game is playing me! wah!” out of the folks who want absolute fictional freedom.

I think what jumps out at me about Space Wurm vs Moonicorn is that it’s a masterclass in the adage that design specificity is the highest and best achievement, particularly in the indie universe of game design. This totally would not work as a generic “space adventure” game — The Expanse or Killjoys would never work with it.

24 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Moves”

  1. I am so glad you picked up SWvM, because this sort of in-depth look at this weird fricking book is exactly what I need to live.

    I adore the quickplay playbooks and mechanics, but the setting as a veneer for Dungeon World is really hard for me. I feel like I’m missing some crucial detail. Like I’m just not well-versed enough in DW and SWvM to grok how you have a longplay Space Wurm and Moonicorn in a game where someone’s just a Fighter. It might just be that I don’t actually own SWvM, or maybe I am a huge square.


  2. You’ve inspired me to dig back into this.

    Monster of the Week has Luck to avoid dying from a lethal injury, and a Resurrection move to bring characters back (but changed by the experience).

  3. Jeremy Kostiew​ I suspect it’s a DW skin largely for the common moves set and the general vibe of the game (player-facing moves, monsters with stats, etc.).

    The one place where I find myself stuttering a little bit in my head is rationalizing scenes where Space Wurm and Moonicorn are together, and/or the work involved to quick-cut between their scenes, and/or how scenes look when they are together but so are other characters. Like, I don’t want to run a game entirely made up of showdowns between two mains and their sidekicks. Nor do I want to run a game where half the table sits around while the other half does their thing.

    I suspect facing down dangers from the neutral Fronts is where you get a more workable mix of spotlight time and agenda-chasing.

  4. Paul Beakley I thought you dug Urban Shadows. That’s why I used it.

    I think the general idea is that if the GM’s actions can take your character out of the game, you get a second chance. I thought even SotI had a “endure harm” move in the same vein.

  5. While not the most convenient answer, I highly recommend reading Saga (if you don’t already) for some of your scene concerns. Specifically the avoiding a game entirely made up of showdowns. I’m specifically thinking of how the comic seems to thrive on putting its cast (a cast ofGame of Thrones-esque proportions) into various weird pairings, winding them up with whatever drama and obstacles they’ve got in their own situations, letting them inevitably crash into each other at high speed while trying to handle their own stuff, and then fall into new groupings to propel the story further.

  6. Well, yeah. To me “Last Breath” is specifically a DW move. Part of what makes DW its own, very different from AW thing. So when Johnstone Metzger says it’s a DW hack as opposed to an AW hack, I look for those DW only things. Maybe I’m too literal.

  7. I have thoughts on how to avoid the showdown, but I need to get packing. (My parenthetical answer: make Moonicorn and SW’s relationship complicated from the beginning , realize they both want different things from the front (control and to stop being hunted), and make the threat big enough that they might need to work together, or at least don’t have time to worry about the other exclusively).

    But I am utterly delighted that you found the Moonicorn doesn’t have a defy danger move: I thought that was the most interesting tech in the quick play, and it’s fascinating to GM.

  8. Yeah, and QP Moonicorn doesn’t have a Suffer Harm move either!

    Rolling for Last Breath when you run out of HP is fairly unique to DW. Usually games follow AW and give you a choice to die or take one of a limited number of consequences. So your reaction isn’t weird, even though it’s a move that needs to be taken into account when designing for DW.

  9. Related to your experience of how players see the different types of moves, I’ve always found Defy Danger really shines when it’s not just the GM telling a player what to roll. Like, the basic format of the conversation is: GM describes the sitch, player says what their character does, and you resolve it, with moves or without. So if the GM describes the danger and the player says what they do, in fiction, to not suffer it, and then either it’s a move to roll for or just a GM decision, it feels like it actually follows that format. Certainly more so than the GM describing the danger after the player says what they do, and then immediately calling for a roll.

  10. I have always found the basic moves in Dungeon World work exactly the way Johnstone Metzger describes, especially Defy Danger, but pretty much everything else as well. But I admit I have never played Apocalypse World itself, so I cannot compare and contrast.

  11. AW generally works that way too, although it kind of hedges when it allows do something under fire to be a catch-all “I think this should be a roll” move. In that case, the player says what they do, GM says they’re acting under fire to do it and then it’s a roll. Do something dangerous in the quick play rules works like that too. It’s expedient, design-wise, and is somewhat justified by a character might not always know something is dangerous until they start doing it. Although even in that case, “tell them the consequences and ask” is probably the appropriate approach.

  12. Johnstone Metzger​ I noticed the qp Mogul also doesn’t have a Suffer Harm move. So those two are exceptionally fragile I guess? I mean my take on that is that you just take the harm and that’s that. Or am I misinterpreting?

  13. I just ran an impromptu game of the QP at a house con, without having read all the playbooks carefully. So I said “Ok, Moonicorn, you’re Doing Something Dangerous,” and then “wait, what do you mean you don’t have it on your sheet?” and then our game got way more interesting.

  14. Paul Beakley Yup, that’s it. If you’re the Mogul and somebody gets past your goons to kick your ass, they just say how they kick your ass and that’s it. At least Moonicorn can Take a Stand. Better keep those goons around!

  15. As a follow-up to my discussion of Narrative Mechanisms in TTRPGs, I want to consider two specific roleplaying games: Exalted (and it’s spin off, Exalted Essence), and Ironsworn.

    Exalted takes place in a high fantasy world, and is played on an epic scale. The heroes are meant to be larger than life, and are inspired by things like real-world mythology, as well as Japanese anime and Chinese wuxia series.

    In contrast Ironsworn is very much played on a different scale. It is inspired by dark fantasy European stories, and while the quests may be perilous, the stakes are often smaller.

    However, both games have narrative mechanisms, which help the story along, but do not simulate the world. (This aspect of new TTRPGs is the difference between simulations vs story-gaming, which I outlined before). These are ‘stunts’ in Exalted, and ‘momentum’ in Ironsworn.


    Old style D&D, and also the original World of Darkness games that Exalted takes its original rule set from, are basically pure simulations games. No rule ‘breaks’ the immersion in the game, and everything is set up to be consistent with the world of that game. Even magic is still a consistent set of rules.

    Which Exalted though, this starts to change. Exalted has stunts, whereby a character can perform a stunt to make the action more ‘cool’, and gains a benefit for doing so.

    Imagine in a game of D&D, if a player said they want to swing on a chandelier across the room, avoiding enemy archers, do a double-forward flip through the air and land by kicking their opponent down, followed by a rapier stab to the chest. This would be dramatic and cinematic, but difficult. There would be multiple rolls required (acrobatics, enemy attack rolls, and your own attack roll), and it would be more difficult to pull off successfully than a simple attack.

    In Exalted, such an action would be considered a stunt, and would gain you extra dice to roll, making a position outcome more likely. This is because it would ‘look’ great (in the theatre of the mind), and so tell a more exciting story. Exalted specifically says in the rules that such dramatic and cinematic stunts should have an increased chance of success. So they go beyond a simple medieval combat simulator, to give something that enhances the narrative flow.

    Exalted Essence changes this up even further. When you do a stunt, you can use the extra dice immediately for your own roll. Or, you can bank these for other benefits: helping other players, restoring resources such as essence or willpower, dramatic editing, or instant training. Dramatic Editing is where you change the scene to your benefit. For example, a dramatic escape might end with you “Landing in the Saddle“, even though there was no horse established to be there beforehand. Effectively stunts are a mechanism for players to change reality to some extent, or at least change the reality as defined by the GM.

    This has some small justification in the fiction of the universe. The Exalted are gifted some power of the gods, and so they are naturally favoured by the ‘source code’ of Creation. (This is especially true for the Sidereal Exalted). But it means that if you’re looking for a game with a rigid set of rules for things like combat etc, and even how the world works, Exalted might not be the choice of game for you.

    But, if you are keen to play a more John Wick, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or DBZ-like game, Exalted shines.


    Ironsworn is very different. The Ironsworn rules are somewhat based on PbtA, so instead of taking actions, your players make moves. (The difference between actions and moves is more philosophical than anything else, so I’m going to gloss over it). There is no stunting built in, because it’s not built for creating that kind of over-the-top story.

    But, it does have the momentum mechanism. To quote, momentum represents how your characters are faring in their quests. If the quest is going well, the momentum will be positive, but if things are starting to go wrong, it may go negative. Interestingly, the players can burn positive momentum, to remove a complication, turn a miss into a weak hit, or a strong hit into a decisive blow. This allows the players to move sail through situations that may otherwise have stalled them.

    But, if the momentum is negative, it will make life more difficult for you, cancelling your action die if it rolls badly. When your momentum reaches the threshold of -6, the players face a setback, which might “reduce your health, spirit, or supply”, “or undermine your progress in a current quest, journey, or fight“. So negative momentum should be avoided, except so far as to make the story more interesting (tales of adversity are often more gripping).

    Success vs failure

    In D&D a success or a failure will have consequences for the characters. This result will have a knock-on effect for the story. But narrative mechanisms allow players and GMs to control the narrative more directly.

    Exalted is a game about the consequences of success. And so the rules are there to help the players succeed, but in the most dramatic and narratively-interesting way possible. Stunts, therefore, heighten the drama, giving that cinematic feel to the game.

    Ironsworn is a game about the consequences of failure. Momentum allows players to ‘kick the can’ of failure down the road, but it may still come back to hurt them later (as burning momentum early in the story may have bad repercussions). And when things start to go downhill, they can go downhill really fast. Of course, if the players manage to regroup, and pull success from the jaws of defeat at the last minute, the story can be equally satisfying.
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