Observation: the further out we get from the initial release of Apocalypse World, the more wildly divergent its hacks are becoming. As expected. That’s how mutation works.
There was a stretch there where I think folks who felt like they had a really strong grasp of what makes PbtA tick were looking at a lot of these hacks and going ugh, no, you’re fucking this up. I did! I’ll cop to that.
This week I got my copy of Uncharted Worlds. It is, in my opinion, the Dungeon World of space adventure games. That is to say, it’s a terrible Apocalypse World hack but a good, functional game in its own right. Just like DW.
I’ve been thinking about the things that make a game a bad AW hack. Obviously this is 100% subjective and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna piss off the “stop loving the things I hate” nerds. But here’s what jumps out:
It’s about the editorial focus of the moves.
The bad hacks (UW, DW, probably others) are super on-point and literal with what the moves do. They are, basically, old fashioned skills. And yes yes, I’ve heard the arguments that moves = skills anyway. Those arguments are wrong.
Apocalypse World set up the expectation that moves directly constrain the narrative. There’s no “shoot someone to death” move in AW; you’re either going aggro with a gun in someone’s face or you’re taking control. And I get, I totally get, why that’s frustrating to a swath of roleplayers. The game is narrowing the fictional context for violence, prohibiting the players from the “do anything you want!” decision space. In a very real way, the game is playing us. This is literal in games like Urban Shadows, which have snowballing mechanical triggers.
Then you’ve got the very easy and, at this point, common application of this methodology in trope reinforcement. So continue on to Monsterhearts. You shut someone down in that game; that move doesn’t let you do anything other than shut someone up. That’s it. It’s narrow and specific and certainly a trope of (supernatural) teen melodramas.
I think there’s a basic aesthetic divide, there. You’ve got the folks who just want to do what they want to do, and you’ve got the folks who want to play a game constrained by its editorial vision. For whatever reason, the first group does not want to have “the conversation.”
I think it’s pretty common for folks who don’t like the constraints to call them “clever” in a disparaging way. I don’t necessarily disagree; I think there are games that suffer from exerting too much effort on being clever, on striving for emergence, on mind control. There are also games that, for me, wildly succeed on those grounds.
You’ve also got the crowd who disparages the bad hacks for their maddening lack of cleverness. Or for just being “dull:” I can think of at least two Notable Designers who scream in anguish every time they see a roll +whateverthefuck type move (DW’s Defy Danger, the common moves in Uncharted Worlds). It’s an affront to PbtA! They don’t understand how it works! And yet folks playing those games probably aren’t having in-session arguments about just what the fictional limitations of Let It Out are or what all you can Seize Control of, either.
(And yes, of course, every game ever has an editorial position. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole. I’m talking about games that do so by design, not by default. I swear to god I will delete any effort to drive my thread down this hole; it is not a battle I have any interest in having.)
I went into Uncharted Worlds expecting to dislike it. Let me put that up front here.
And I did, in fact, dislike it on my first read-through. Like Dungeon World, it eschews the “cleverness” of the so-called “good hacks.” It has no distinct editorial position; it provides mechanisms to carry out the actions that you do in a space adventure, without any behavior-shaping economies or narrow thematic/trope focus. Just like how DW models “what you do in a D&D game.” It’s all very on-point and direct. There are no ethical tricks hidden inside how the moves work and interlock. I think, if you’re looking for behavior-shaping mechanisms, you’ll find it boring.
That said, I think Uncharted Worlds very much succeeds at what it sets out to do.
My first clue was realizing — at first with indignation! — that the game is in fact not a PbtA game. I went looking for the expected shout-out to Vincent Baker in the introduction, didn’t see it. Then I’m like how dare they! But he is thanked on the frontispiece for the inspiration. The game has lots of PbtA trappings — moves and principles, specifically — but it is not a PbtA game.
Once I stopped trying to judge it for what it is not, I had more appreciation for what he’s actually done. Character creation provides for a lot of variety in the space opera mold. The faction-creation tools I think will set up a pretty neat relationship map to play within. It acknowledges the gear-porn aspect of traditional sci-fi gaming without going completely bonkers. It’s a toolkit, which necessarily means it’s quite generic. That’s going to work great for a lot of players.
Same with Dungeon World, although it is obviously a standard bearer of the PbtA thing. It’s also not clever, on point, mostly traditional. Also Blades in the Dark, which is probably closer in spirit to PbtA despite being the most mechanically distant of all these.
6-/7-9/10+ does not a PbtA game make. Principles and agendas, also not that special (although bullet-pointing what to focus on is really smart technology). Calling a die-rolling trigger in a game a “move,” also not especially needed. Taking away the editorial focus? That, to me, makes it a bad hack.
Which has nothing at all to do with it being a good game.