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.