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.

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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!

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