Apocalypse World

The Magic of 7-9: Paul Holds Court 2/3

In post 1/3, Paul Taliesin asked for specifics about my comment on “the magic of 7-9,” which apparently Judd Karlman thinks is now a Paul B cliche (it is). Here are my current thoughts on why I say that.

First off, 7-9 “yes but” results don’t start magical. Not at all. They’re just procedural, a nifty way to produce mixed outcomes. It’s good basic tech, and if your craft doesn’t extend beyond procedural mastery, sweet, you’re still good to go.

But in my games, at some point they become magical. Like, they show up at just the right time for maximum impact. And I can totally disclaim that impact! Look, it’s not me delivering the killing blow. It’s the dice. Such magic. Wow.

I think what’s actually happening, if you want to get really boring and deconstructionist about it, is that I’m setting situations up so that when a 7-9 comes up, I’ve got an amazeballs outcome that goes well beyond the procedure itself.

I think another thing that makes 7-9s magical for me is that I love me a good O. Henry style ironic twist. Why beat down the players with punitive 6 misses that feel like failure when I can let them feel like, oh wow, you almost got everything you want but fuuuuuck you.

Hey, look, the dice. It’s the dice.

It’s magic.

Don’t blame me.

In our haunted carnival AW game, the heartbreaking, perfect 7-9 was the battlebabe making a mad dash, literally acting under fire, to reach his lover Mice. He gets to her! And one of their more likeable NPCs is the one who shoots her dead upon his arrival.

I mean it came as no great surprise. Mice’s hardhold and her gang, the Patriots, have been ambushed and outmaneuvered by Hugo and his brutal alliance of scavenger gangs. She’s on the run: another roll, a miss in fact, put her at the Driver’s main ride, gun out, first demanding a ride and then happily accepting the Driver’s show of friendship.

And that came as no surprise because I’d asked the Battlebabe all kinds of leading, investing questions along the way via Open Your Brain (which will be post 3/3 in the Paul B Holds Court series, coming next).

So what I’m basically saying is, I lay lots of groundwork leading up to the brutal delivery of a 7-9, and just waited until the roll happened. Because they roll a lot of dice in my game. The odds are entirely in my favor that a timely roll will give me my 7-9 and I’ll have already paved the way toward executing it.

I also like 7-9s more than misses because it feels like you got so close to everything you wanted, you know? A miss is a miss. I’ve been working hard at backing off the sting of a miss, because gosh it’s easy for me to treat them like FAILURE. Which they don’t have to be. So my “MC punches you in the gut” moments land on 7-9s, not 6es.

Keeping my powder dry for the 7-9s is what I mean when I say I use them to “close a thread” in the previous post. It’s not a good phrase because obvs nothing is “closed.” What I really meant was what I said above: dreaming up the best, most wrenching twist and filing it away.

Make sense? I feel a little like I’m explaining not just the punchline, but the craft (timing, reincorporation, repeating motifs) involved in delivering it for maximum effect.

Next: The Maelstrom

27 thoughts on “Apocalypse World”

  1. So in your example, what would have happened if the Battlebabe had missed that roll? They wouldn’t have made it to Mice in time to see her die, or at all? Would something worse happen?

    I suppose I’m asking where the success is in that “mixed success” 7-9 roll.

  2. The success was getting to Mice.

    On a miss, I’d have probably just complicated the situation further. Put up more roadblocks. More troops on the ground, maybe. I dunno exactly! But I wouldn’t have taken her away from him because of it.

  3. Was he dashing to save her? Because if so I fail to see how getting to her to see her die benefits him in any way (but maybe we’re missing some context).

    Really interesting take on the 7-9!

  4. You’re totally missing context, yeah, and this is why I kind of hate talking specifics in this way.

    In the heat of the moment, at the table, blood pressure up, I say “okay, there’s Mice! She’s right across the town square. She sees you.”

    BB: “I have to get to her!”

    Me: “Sweet, act under fire to get to her.”

    BB: “Umm…7.”

    Me: ::devilface::

    I think it is a super important part of Apocalypse World that there is no effort to clarify intent. The game gives no shits about intent, other than the whole “if you do that you trigger X move” or “so you’re good with taking harm as established?” type clarifying statements. Otherwise fiction follows fiction and we leave intent out of it.

    This does leave me in a bit of genie-granting-literal-wishes role, which, you know. Not everyone is on board with. But I’ll say I’ve never actually had someone get mad and all “well shit, of course I wanted to get her to safety, you fucked me!” type reaction.

  5. I tend to roll easier on 7-9s, usually setting up for later hard moves, but that’s just personal style.

    I do recall at least once killing an NPC biker when the Chopper was just trying to get him under control. He rolled a 7-9 and got what he wanted, but then he told his second-in-command to “take care of this” and that’s just what he did.

  6. Paul Beakley Yeah, in retrospect I kind of regretted discussing this very specific example while missing the context, sorry. Thank you for the additional details : I now realize I never take the player’s intent out of the equation when I’m making MC moves — and it might be worth trying it your way to see what happens.

  7. JC Nau it’s a tricky thing! My instinct is to always, always get a sense of intent. In fact I’ll say I do, as a practical matter, tend to be aware of what their intent actually is. But I don’t talk about it because that creates the expectation that I need to honor that. Which the rules don’t require or even allow, especially on AUF 7-9s.

    Which is why I say it’s like being one of those asshole genies who fucks with you because they know exactly what it is you were asking for.

  8. hey Paul, in the example, where you said, “literally acting under fire”, was the Battlebabe running through a hail of gunfire during a battle to get to Mice?
    If so, then the success part of the mixed success is that he wasn’t shot, right?

  9. OK, aside from your aggressively normative use of “regular normal”, I do fundamentally agree with you, Jason Corley. I hate to quote chapter and verse, but there’s a thread in Vincent’s writing from lumpley.com – anyway: post a comment to the earliest posts on anyway about Apocalypse World, that suggests that he moved from “let’s talk about intent” out the other side into “I actually like if it we talk about what you do and what happens, and you have to negotiate with yourself and the game how to achieve your intent”.

    See also my favorite passage in Poison’d:

    > This is a word to the wise—I think you’ll find that fighting is a poor way for your pirate to get what he wants out of people. At the end of the fight, you’ll often find that he’s beaten or killed his opponent instead of getting what he hoped for.

  10. Great post, but I feel like something is missing here. Are you just talking about a 7-9 outcome of an “act under fire”? Because I’m not seeing it as obviously for other moves.

    I know you said you didn’t like to speak of particulars, but I think this is the kind of thing where a specific example is almost entirely necessarily. Else everyone just reads what they want to hear into an abstract example and we all go home none the wiser.

    Also related: I think what you’re describing can often (maybe even always) done on a miss. Give them what they thought they wanted, and then twist the knife. “You get to her, after all… to find her bleeding in the dust” sounds like a great Hard Move to me. You can always do this kind of thing on a miss.

    Or am I missing the point here?

    What I’m taking away from your post is: use the fiction, play, and provocative questions to find those meaningful points where the right resolution will really have weight, and then wait for the appropriate die outcome to deliver that move/moment/outcome.

    I’m not sure that has anything to do with 7-9, though, right? In some circumstances – and depending on the move – it could be a miss, or sometimes even a hit. (A classic example being a success on a “Reading” move or an “open your brain” which reveals to you something you wanted to know, but, unfortunately, which is also terrible news. If the MC has just invented that on the spot, it could be seen as cheating, or against the spirit of the rules, but often you’ll find that the situation has already been set up – the bad thing has happened off-screen, perhaps – and revealing it even on a success feels entirely right.)

  11. The magic of 7-9 extends to other moves, sure. Not all of them. Nothing cool happens on the harm move.

    My experience of play has shown me that 7-9 just feels different. The players cringe on a miss, and I’m messing with that Pavlovian response to them: misses are not failures.

    So, sure, procedurally and “legally” I could have totally waited for a miss to kill that NPC. But the texture of the 7-9 moment is just … different. I’m not sure how else to explain it.

    There’s lots and lots about the craft that have their own truths aside from what is procedurally accurate. I mean this isn’t controversial is it?

  12. Yeah, that’s my approach to misses too. The 6- is a rug-pull, the 7-9 is a paper cut. A miss is often more severe in the grand scheme of things, but paper cuts, man — now that’s personal.

  13. Great example. I know you didn’t ask for intent but it does feel to me like a classic BW switcheroo of task and intent. I want to protect Mice, I do it by running across the battlefield. Dice come up bad, you fulfill your task but fail to meet your intent. You make it across the the battlefield but Mice doesn’t need your protection, in fact she has a pistol trained on you as you come around the corner and opens fire.

    Defy danger can feel unwieldy in the beginning so to hit a point where you know exactly what to do when that 7 comes up does seem pretty magical. Would you say your prep work placed a question of how are these two going to split in your head, and when the 7 came up you knew your answer?

    I find it interesting that you value 7-9s over 6s. I like to use 6’s to make moves, introduce new threats or complicate their lives in general. But I have also received confused feedback when it feels like the 7-9’s hurts worse than the 6’s. With act under fire moves you got an alibi because nothing is really written in stone and the players don’t know whats going to happen. but on more explicit moves they see what a 7-9 looks like and can feel toyed with when 6 or lower doesn’t hit as hard. I’m specifically thinking about The Sprawl where the 7-9 result on mix it up is pretty brutal. So when a 6 comes up I jump on the chance to not sucker punch them as much as twist the knife with complication. Still to some players it felt like a lighter consequence than a 7-9 and cause confusion about how the game worked exactly. No real answer or conclusion. Just rambling thoughts about expectations from dice rolls, and how it can be interesting when the 7-9 are the more dramatic result.

  14. Interesting. So part of the “magic” of the 7-9 is that’s a surprise, or more likely to catch the players off-guard? I’m not sure how I feel about that.

  15. Here’s what you posted elsewhere, by accident, but belongs here:

    “I mean that the transaction around 7-9 is a ritual. Just like a miss has a ritual. It’s nothing so formal! It’s more like…

    The Miss Ritual

    Them: Oh! A miss. Typical. (Internal dialogue: Oh god, I rolled a five. Well shit, guess I failed. Good thing I didn’t roll snake eyes! I’d have been really screwed! Etc etc. (ignoring the procedural inaccuracies of this line of thought, it’s still a ritual involving probably all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief).)

    Me: Okay, so let me make my move then. Nah it won’t be that bad! Remember, and I’m saying this for myself as much as for you: misses are not per se failures. Oh hey, you see Mice clambering up out of the river bed. She looks pretty beat up but you could get to her. Just have to get across the open field where the firefight is going down. (The move I’m actually making: Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost.)

    The 7-9 Ritual

    Them: hey a … 9. Shit. Okay. Um?

    Me: Gimme a second. (I don’t need a second. I just let it sit there for a bit.) Let me look at that move again…a worse position, hesitate, an ugly choice…hm. (I don’t need to look at the move again.) Ah. Well obviously as you get there, safe and sound, three shots pop-pop-pop from behind you and Mice falls to the ground, dead.


    I mean this is all just the theatrics of facilitating a game, yeah? These aren’t rooolz. This is just tempo and delivery and messing with players’ heads.

    I could write out examples all day long, I guess, but that’s all I’m talking about.”

  16. That’s solid. I still have mixed feelings about the idea of surprise being key here – it would be easy for it to come off as a cheap shot or breaking the social contract – but it’s interesting.

    The particular example of Mice getting shot doesn’t sound like a “worse position, hesitation, or an ugly choice”, but I can chalk that up to the challenges of describing things in words over the internet – I’ll assume that the fiction leading up to that moment at your table made it feel like just the right thing. (No point debating that kind of stuff online, after all.)

    Thanks for this excellent series of posts! It’s been a fun conversation.

  17. For 7-9 on Act, I tend to focus on the “offer” and “choice” part of the move. You want to get across to Mice? Either you or she are going to draw more fire, which will it be? Or, you can make it across, but you’re going to get shot in the process, do you still want to do it?

Leave a Reply