How Many Moves Is Too Many?

I meant to write about this sooner: the relative heaviness of Legacy.

The game has a lot going on: two layers of play (zoomed in to characters and zoomed out to families) with some fuzziness as to when you’ve fully focused on one or the other. Everyone has two playbooks (character and family). Eventually — I’m hoping my players will start thinking about this tonight — they’ll take on Wonders, mega-projects you can do to radically reshape your setting.

The move sets are broken up into “basic” and “peripheral” moves, both on the family and character sheets, but honestly after a couple sessions the division seems arbitrary. There’s also some overlap between moves. Example: are you defusing a tense situation or forging a path across precarious or dangerous terrain? That was our big one last time, as the characters tried to make their way out of a treacherous vampire-infested highrise in the ruins.

The typical basic move load of a PbtA game is 8 or 9 moves. I haven’t done a comprehensive audit, but looking at stuff I’m most familiar with:

Epyllion has 9, and they’re super simple. Probably the tightest move set I can think of.

Apocalypse World 2E has 8, with a couple one-off or moves-that-trigger-moves type things. And then all the minigames: road war, battle, etc. I gotta say, I don’t super-love the dramatic uptick in rules in 2E but I very much appreciate that those move sets are minigames that get invoked at specific times (rather than being moves to watch for at all times).

NIght Witches has 6 day moves and 6 night moves, which never overlap. There’s also a couple brief/debrief trigger things that I don’t really think of as “moves.”

Cartel has 9 moves, plus the stress subsystem and the whole heat thing, which is a separate minigame.

Monsterhearst 2E has 7ish — I don’t personally think of XP rules, healing, conditions etc as “moves” so much as “rules.” They’re not things you put your hands on, as a player, to achieve your goals.

Sagas of the Icelanders really just has 2 moves that are common to women and men (tempt fate and look into someone’s heart) plus various necessary procedures (harm, scars, campaign play stuff), but really the meat is in the Man and Woman lists, each of which have 4 moves. So probably the “simplest” but also asymmetrical.

Urban Shadows, which I had previously considered the “heaviest” PbtA on my list, has 8 basic moves, 4 faction moves, and both the Debt and Corruption subsystems.

Okay. With me so far?

Setting aside what I think are arbitrary divisions between “basic” and “peripheral,” Legacy has 8 Family moves we regularly use, and 9 Character moves we’ve regularly used. Those aren’t the full counts; I’m leaving out procedural kinda-not-move moves like what happens when your Mood goes high or low, how to heal, all that stuff.

Given what feels like good play (so far), being able to move between both modes of play and even occasionally blending those modes, means keeping 17 options in your head at all times! And that does not include playbook, role, and family options — happily just one of each for everyone so far. And it doesn’t include any of the GM-facing stuff (zooming in and out, tooling up, the in want let’s-stir-the-pot move, the turning of the Age).

Mostly the game feels playable, at least from where I’m sitting as facilitator. I do find myself spending a lot of time guiding and suggesting moves for players to make to Get Things Done: think about lending aid! Don’t forget those Treaties you have! Do you want to call for aid? Don’t forget to spend your debt and tech! And so on.

Probably the one big shift I’ve needed to make is to simply stop looking for descriptive move triggers during play. Like, there’s just no way for me to keep all four Role moves for all three characters in my head at all times: the players absolutely must track whether they’re triggering those moves (and therefore advancing). I still heavily rely on players declaring moves they’re making rather than observing the fiction for moves being made. That’s not a mode of PbtA play I like — I think the prescriptive/descriptive move technology of conventional PbtA games is a family-wide killer app — but given the extraordinary interplay of mechanisms here, it’s just necessary.

On the players’ side, jeez, I have no idea how empowered, or not, they’re feeling about all these options. It feels like a lot to stay on top of.

It’s funny: I did not eyeball Legacy as “complex” when I first read it, nor do I even right now, knowing better! I look at a list and thinking, well 6 moves seems pretty simple! Except for these other four moves. And the other play mode and its moves.

I’m kind of reminded of Masks as well, looking over all these moves. The Masks basic moveset is just 8. But! There’s also the entire block of stuff having to do with team mechanics and manipulating Influence (strings-y type things). It makes me wonder if making, like, all the rules “moves” is actually the best way to go. I mean I don’t know! I’m working on some elaborate games on my end as well, and I deeply fear the ever-growing rat’s nest of interconnected procedures that seems to spawn in every direction.

22 thoughts on “How Many Moves Is Too Many?”

  1. I love thinking about this sort of cognitive load measurement in games. Turn shares some design elements with PbtA games, but it has an odd number of move-equivalent rules units. Since each character has a human role and a beast archetype, each player is keeping track of multiple abilities/powers (usually one from the human side, plus 2-4 from their beast depending on advances). They also track their own stress and exposure tracks.

    For move-like rules units, the Town Manager (GM) only keeps track of the Struggles. They trigger more like saving throws. There are 4 of them to keep in mind for characters in human form, and 4 mirrored versions to keep in mind for characters in beast form (essentially, each side has a “deal with a stressful situation” struggle, an “I need to communicate” struggle, a “limit fallout from physical action” struggle, and an “alleviate stress” struggle). Usually, that means keeping track of only four at once, but occasionally you’ll see players in a scene in mixed forms (e.g., one human and one beast – there are no hybrid forms in Turn).

  2. For me as a player, the amount of cognitive load is relative. What’s the outcome or impact of cognitive load? Measuring cognitive load as if it were linear based on number of potential actions, without consideration of individual perception (cognition lives in each person’s head, and their perception of the load may vary), or the impact that has on the behavior of the loaded individual seems to be navel-gazing wankery.

    Unless and until you regard the cognitive load as either an enabler or inhibitor of some other action, it can’t be quantified in a useful way.

  3. Lex Larson Agreed! When I’m facing something where I have some existing confusion or lack of clarity, a large number of apparent options can exacerbate that and make the situation worse, but there are other times where the same number of options makes me feel like I’m empowered with choices. There are a lot of potential outcomes.

  4. Lex Larson I feel a bit that part of it here for me is about the context of those who seek for system levers and/or system mastery, and the weight of the number of options and complexity of interactions with them.

    For example, Paul is a big system mastery guy. He wants to use the system well to do what it was intended to do to get a positive outcome for his table. Thus, when he comes to the table he’s going to try to interact with all the levers of the system in the best way as he can.

    OTOH, when several of my players engage with PtbA games, the same number of levers doesn’t necessarily affect their play (or effect their game) in the same way because they don’t care about the levers, as such. Like, they come to play a character and get some feels, and so they do what their character does, and if they trigger a move along the way — cool.

    I’m somewhere in the middle, and it often gives me an odd space to fit in where I’m dealing with a different level of cognitive load than either set of my players or folks I play with at cons or whatever. I don’t fit easily into either model of interaction with system, and so I find folks discussing how and why they interact with levers, and the points it hits them at, useful and not at all naval gazing. Even if I don’t agree with their analysis, their analysis helps me understand how they approach system, and thus how I approach them when we game together.

    edit: Damn computer… didn’t mean to post yet.

    Legacy, in terms of cognitive load, is an interesting game to me. As when I’m actually playing (the two times I played) I didn’t struggle with it particularly hard. But when I’m setting up a game, or doing mental prep to get my head into the game? Then it’s pretty brutal.

    I think it has less to do with the number of moves though, and with the high variability of setting and the number of inputs that can go into it.

  5. I’m having a hard time pinning this down in words, but while I sometimes feel this impression Legacy works more like Burning Wheel than PBTA, with these tight player-skill subsystems, I also feel that impression is wrong?

    I get a push and pull between “Moving resources around is all about engaging these moves and figuring out what it looks like and only happens when you do” and then completely re-evaluate that when I see “_When your family claims or creates a significant resource in the fiction_ add it as a surplus”

    I don’t feel clear about, is there a way to orthogonally create these things fictionally without working through these combos of family moves, or is that just a sign you weren’t watching the moves closely enough along the way?

  6. Jonathan Perrine right? I know what you’re getting at. The “conversation” feels less like natural language and more about the interplay of formal systems and economies. I pretty much never evaluate for moves triggers.

    I think some of that too is how big and chunky resolution is. There’s not much that happens blow by blow, except possibly Defuse. Maybe. It’s just a different style.

    I do think the game works better when the players understand their mechanical options and play hard toward them. And that’s very much a Burning Wheel thing.

  7. Brand Robins One of the most common effects of cognitive load has to do with maintaining load over time erodes our decision-making abilities.

    The study I read specifically used food choices when studying cognitive load. Folks who were under more load throughout the day experienced less ‘willpower’ to choose healthy food options at the end of the day.

    In gameplay, that may be how cognitive load of a game manifests: we get the munchies. Or… maybe we get more impulsive and improv more than we would have, had we had less load.

  8. Paul Beakley But the way I think this ties back into cognitive load is that on the player side, in many games I can often click off the move list part of my brain and chase fiction, relying on the MC to translate when we blunder into cool uncertain things aka moves.

    Because that responsibility is spreading out a little, it’s harder to step back from those move sheets as a player.

  9. I’m thinking about what sorts of things require “willpower” or something like it in a tabletop environment. Tamping down frustrated outbursts is at the top of my personal list.

  10. Fascinating convo! I’m playing an Urban Shadows Vamp at the moment and trying to work out a balance between mechanically pursuing people for my Web, and portraying my character with fictional motivations. It’s hard and I never quite framed it like y’all are discussing.
    Looks like this issue at the system-level in Legacy would break some groups. Oh for the days when PbtA was fiction-first, ’twas a simpler time. 😛

  11. Aaron Feild oh yeah, the Vamp minigame is a really good parallel to Legacy. Now imagine everyone has to manage their own Web, and every Web needs to be moving forward through time for decades and centuries. It’s doable! But you need really good tools for it.

    Today’s post digs into this one more.

  12. Oh, huh, just saw this post too. Whoops! For what it’s worth a lot of what I’m doing when designing Free From the Yoke is in alignment with this; I’ve stripped back the number of moves, removed the basic/peripheral designation in favour of something more like ‘generic moves for a wide variety of situations’ versus ‘minigame moves for specific situations’, and I’ve cut out Treaty, Data and Tech as things you need to track.

Leave a Reply