“The Conversation”

I’ve always been a little skeptical of this indie truism of roleplaying. You know, “roleplaying is a conversation.”

It shows up in PbtA rulesets and their adjuncts, and I think it’s taken on an aura of unquestionable truth. Dogma. I’ve also seen the word “conversation” used so broadly that literally any linguistic transaction between two humans falls into it. I think it’s when I see that trick pulled that I’m the most skeptical. It feels as useful as “roleplaying is sending air vibrations at each other.”

Okay so we’re running Sagas of the Icelanders, right? We’re doing our uh … fifth session, I think, tomorrow. I had a lot of reasons to run it. One was that I wanted to see how Sagas held up as a campaign game; the answer will be a future essay. Another reason is that I’ve got one or two players in my group that have never really keyed into PbtA style games. The main doubter constantly chafed against the constraints and the focus, felt directionless, never really felt confident invoking moves. Me being me, I’m usually more than ready to take the blame for disconnects like that. But I’ve run PbtA games with him and other players, and the other players enjoyed it just fine. So my agenda was to run my favorite iteration of PbtA for him to see if the (IMO) best version of that rule style worked.

And it is. I’ve had a chance to debrief with him a couple times, but I want to swing around to the strategy I took regarding the notion of “The Conversation.”

I’ve tried pitching that term before, but both because I hadn’t really internalized it nor really saw much difference in play style, “The Conversation” didn’t really get discussed or referenced much. It was, at best, aspirational: “Games like this should feel like a conversation,” or something along those lines. But as a practical matter? I’d run them like anything else, pretty much.

I’m going to unpack my feelings about “conversational” versus “traditional” here, and I’m going to use normal English. If you feel a powerful urge to send me off to some forum somewhere to memorize an indiegame Talmud, please fight that urge.

So, “The Conversation.” Something I noticed this player bringing up over and over is how chafed he felt at “not being able to do anything” because of the Moves structure. He was always a minority voice so I didn’t give this concern the attention it deserved. He’d sit through sessions and maybe not do much, or want to do a thing, run into the tight constraints of most moves’ fictional positioning requirements, and then shut down. He wanted moves he could use as tools. (I’d argue that that’s what sends us down the Dungeon World branch of PbtA, but I can get into that another time).

I tried a different approach this time. The problem he was having was that he felt creatively constrained to the moves at hand, and I think he arrived at that conclusion because in many, maybe most, other games, rolling or otherwise engaging with mechanical procedures is the unspoken-but-understood flag that now we’re doing something that affects the fiction. In traditional play, if we’re just talking it’s just talk. It only “matters” when you roll dice.

This time I emphasized early that the inverse of this is true: you can say and accomplish literally anything that we all agree is reasonable and true to the fiction. In other words, let’s start with the premise that this is a diceless talky-talky freeform. He’s done some freeforms with us, and enjoyed them, so he understood this right away.

The next step was to treat the SotI Common Moves as exceptions to this rule.

We’re just going to talk. We’re going to talk and talk and talk and my job will be to listen for when moves get triggered. Don’t worry about aiming for moves and don’t feel constrained by your moves list. If it’s reasonable and it’s not a trigger, no worries, we’ll just keep talking.

GM-discretionary moves like Sagas’ Tempt Fate are ideal tools for this. I think Apocalypse World’s Act Under Fire, which I used to despise, falls under this as well. That right there is the trigger I’m listening for. The existence of that rule is what lets us just talk and talk.

Now, there is certainly a level of system mastery that you can achieve. Smart and experienced players regularly direct their input toward the things their characters are good at, right? The player-facing moves are most definitely their tools that they have to grab hold of. I think it’s a pretty heavy cognitive load for the GM to have to listen for everyone’s moves to get triggered. Hence the value of Common Moves that everyone can stare at, including the GM. But in our game, our unhappy/not-connecting player doesn’t have that mastery. So it’s healthy and good for him to just talk and talk and let me tell him when to go to the dice.

So, yes, “let’s just talk and I’ll let you know if you’re triggering a move” is virtually identical to the normal paragraph you see in PbtA games about “The Conversation.” But it was framed a little different for him, mostly to highlight that niggling sense we all have that not every RPG is “a conversation.” And not every PbtA game is built such that everything except move triggers are just talked through.

I don’t know that anything like “just talk until I feel like a move is being triggered” exists in the trad (trad-writ-large, not just D&D) universe. The formulation is different: the players grab their dice because they want to make their mark on the fiction, and the only way that happens is when you roll dice. I don’t think I really ever paid that much attention to non-mechanical fictional positioning outside of translation into mechanical terms: cover bonuses in a firefight, difficulty modifiers for a Persuade roll, whatever.

Anyway, probably many/most old-timer PbtA players are perfectly comfortable with “The Conversation.” This is just one way I was able to (re)frame it to highlight the necessary differences. And it relied on being able to talk about freeform games we’d played like Durance and Seco Creek Vigilance Committee. Honestly if we hadn’t had that, I’m not sure how I’d bridge folks over to the new dogma.

0 thoughts on ““The Conversation””

  1. Yeah, totally. That’s why I think that understanding “the Onion” part of how AW (and some other PBTA games) works is really important. The diceless freeform talky core is the foundation on which everything else happens. The times when I (and other folks) have forgotten that have been some of my weaker moments GMing or playing the game.

  2. I think his breakthrough moment was, playing the Goði, he said “god, I just want to negotiate a reasonable deal but that’s not a move.” To which I said, “What? No. Just do it. If you trigger something I promise I’ll let you know.”

  3. This goes hand in hand with how “say yes or roll the dice” is not a thing in AW, or most AW based games, and should not be. Should be killed with fire.

  4. I had a similar experience with a player that began by playing scenes in Microscope – which are diceless and entirely based on “you say a thing, I say if and how it affects me”.

  5. Yeah, this is good stuff.

    A few of my players often feel like they are in a race to trigger their moves. I think the phrasing you use here: “you can say and accomplish literally anything that we all agree is reasonable and true to the fiction” is absolutely key.

    Ironically, a lot of PbtA games undercut this (maybe?) by using moves to trigger the XP cycle. Because XP is the food-pellet-button of the system, players who aren’t totally fresh to RPGs will tend to burrow-down on hitting those triggers. I know I’m personally really bad for this. In AW, if I don’t advance every session, I’m probably half-asleep, because I will force my play to match moves no matter how mechanically suboptimal they are.

    Sprawl breaks from that a bit, by focusing XP gain on directives and mission objectives, and so players actually get rewarded for “the conversation” in a lot of ways. Of course, Sprawl also has moves that are a little more like tools, so one step forward, one step back.

  6. Aaron Griffin see, no, that (for me) actually changes the transaction again. The other guy might not think it’s reasonable. He might insult your honor. His wife might goad him into cutting your throat. Who knows?

  7. Noob question: Is this (the Coversation) the basis of “Say Yes or roll the dice?”

    Part of the reason I want to play in a PbtA game before I run any of them is that I’m not sure I comprehend this whole discussion. Yet. However, talk until something happens/triggers (say yes, etc.) makes so much more sense.

    Am I even talking about the same thing here? Or is this a discussion for a different thread?

  8. No, I think this is perfect. Adam Day and Devon Apple asked similar questions.

    In my head at least, “roll the dice or say yes” — that’s the original formulation and it’s important — means that every transaction is left to the GM to evaluate. The assumption is that you’re always rolling dice unless the GM says yes.

    Whereas in almost all cases in PbtA moves, the rule is to do it you have to do it; if you did it you did it or whatever. If you wave a gun in someone’s face, you’ve Gone Aggro. I don’t get to say, as GM, “yeahhh jeez you’re really scary and I’m not interested in this scene, so sure, she’ll let you pass.” The moves almost never give the GM any discretionary room.


    Then you have the discretionary moves I mention up there, Tempt Fate and Act Under Fire. I’m trying to think of the equivalent in Urban Shadows… I don’t think there is one. Buuut someone has to decide, in the case of Tempt Fate, if what you’re doing is “exceptionally dangerous, risky, taboo or out of your league.” I’ve shrugged through — said yes — places where I didn’t think an action was any of those things. The grizzled old huscarl horsing around with the five year old isn’t tempting fate, even if the boy has a live weapon in his hands. Unless that huscarl got raging drunk.

    So my answer is “roll the dice or say yes” almost never appears in PbtA games. And now I await Brand Robins’ hot take on this!

  9. Totally agree.  Actually it never dawned on me to give anyone a different assumption.  We just talk.  I’ll stop you when I hear a mechanical function being required, or an agency boundary being crossed.

  10. Here’s the origin of that, as far as I know. It is from Dogs in the Vineyard, which isn’t a PbtA game. It was a game in which dice are only rolled when there is a conflict, so you say yes to get to real conflicts.

    PS Paul Beakley Urban Shadows has “keep your cool” but it’s predicated on risk.

  11. It’s probably also worth mentioned that there are some PBTA hacks that are super highly structured and compressed such that you are constantly making moves (kinda): Murderous Ghosts, Sundered Land, Restless, Firebrands, etc. Basically you choose your next move off a list and just do it, in a chain of moves that don’t snowball as much as sequence. Granted, some of the moves in these games are like “freeplay about this until X happens” but that’s an inverse of the Conversation + Moves structure of AW, in my mind (the moves structure the conversation, rather than the other way around in AW).

    Really this is that thing again: where Vincent is intentionally trying to push PBTA into very different forms, whereas most folks talk about PBTA in terms of the most popular titles that work kinda like AW.

  12. J. Walton yeah, totally agreed. Magpie’s style tends toward snowballs/sequences as well, particularly in Cartel and to a lesser degree Urban Shadows. I’m thinking specifically about the stress moves in Cartel here.

    That sense that (~in Soviet Union~) the game is playing you is something that bugs/bugged my PbtA naysayers. In Urban Shadows, they’d feel like they were in constant freefall, which is not a feeling they’ve come to game night for. Some of that’s on me running it in this breathless, one-shotty way. Some of it’s on the move design.

  13. Yeah, I think there’s definitely some risk of players feeling like they don’t get to make meaningful choices (oh no, indie railroading!). When I played Firebrands, one player kept chaffing against the list of choices (like some people do with the name lists or the bullet options in the core AW moves), saying they wanted to do something different, and sometimes there were blanks in the moves where you could fill in your own action. But inventing your own custom move still didn’t break you out of the chain prescribed by the rules. That said, fatalism has always been a major theme in indie RPG design, so I see “choices vs. doom” as one of the main tensions in this tradition of games.

  14. I was part of a conversation with a person looking to GM Monster of the Week along these lines on RPGGeek, recently. After that conversation, I think part of the problem some people have with PbtA games is “freeform until a move triggers” sounds very similar to “the GM tells you what happens between move triggers”, which feels in the neighborhood of “the GM railroads you when a move isn’t triggering”.

    This is true even if you are a GM. This person, for example, found it very strange that he was essentially not allowed to roll dice when it seemed like a good time to roll dice, that he was required to use “GM fiat” (his words, I think) to determine outcomes that in any other game he would let the dice decide.

    If it is of any interest, here is the thread: https://rpggeek.com/thread/1692919/what-do-you-do-when-running-monster-week-different

  15. The part of 1e AW that breaks when you run the conversation like this is that XPs are tied to making rolls for marked traits.

    So all of the talky talky I’ll let you know if you’ve triggered a move is actually screwing players out of XPs. Its literally the exact wrong XP system for the game.

    Not sure if 2e fixed that, but it drove me bananas everytime I tried to play AW.

    You can’t just have a conversation and not drive towards moves AND level up at the same time.

  16. Ah, the struggle between GM Fiat (I say what happens and you don’t get to roll any dice) and collaborative storytelling (we build a story together and improvise until the GM or the game says we have to roll dice).

  17. Hans Messersmith Yeah, I’ve eavesdropped on a lot of tables where the dice are the players’ main resource to resist/affect the GM’s narrative (and even then, only slightly), so I can see how that would carry over to PBTA games.

  18. Also, I fail to see how “talk and talk and if it’s reasonable it just happens and we’ll only roll dice if a move is triggered” isn’t effectively the PbtA version of “say yes, or roll the dice”.

    The only difference is that triggers change the “or roll dice” decision from one of subjective judgement to one of perceptive judgement.

    Or in other words Brand Robins​ is probably wrong again.

  19. Ralph Mazza 2e is still the same.

    But I also don’t think the text says that the game is MOSTLY conversation. It suggests it goes back and forth between talking and rolling.

  20. So I’m a wack nut, in that I often play PTBA games with joint-GMing or semi-no GMing.

    (So like, we have two or three players and in any given scene one of us is probably responsible for some GM style action, but not always, and we all do different stuff between games and toss out ideas as we play.)

    And one of the reasons it works is that we’re all freeforming, and all calling moves when they trigger. No one person needs to be sole responsible for saying “That’s a move” because if it’s a move you all kind of know, sometimes someone just needs to say it. And when it’s a move, there’s no “do we roll or not” you just roll.

    This is in contrast with Dogs in the Vineyard, where you as GM can totally be like “oh yes, just do that thing, I won’t resist it happening.”

    Joint non-centralized GMing, in my experience, is pretty much a non-starter in Dogs. And I know it doesn’t work for many folks for PtbA, but I feel like (and this is not a hard assertion) that much of the time in Dogs the GM is making a lot of hard core decisions about the total course and pacing of the game that in PtbA’s “conversation” you don’t need to make.

    Many GMs probably still do, but a lot of the time you don’t need to. You can steer the conversation in lots of ways, but you don’t have to the trigger man.

    I have occasionally seen tables where that was explicit too. I’m trying to remember who it was, but I do know I saw a GM at Dreamation who asked one of the players to call when moves happened, so that they could focus on playing NPCs. The player would just chime up in a scene and be like “Is that Seize by Force?” or whatever.

  21. Ralph Mazza that’s exactly it. In Dogs as a GM I can totally just say “fine you kill him.” In PtbA I cannot, if I’m in a game with a “kill them” move. And if I’m in a game with no move that ever is used for killing, then I can say yes or no, but cannot have them roll the dice.

  22. I like Brand Robins​ saying a Dogs GM can say “I won’t resist it happening” because I think that’s where this lies. The push-back you get in a standard GM’d game is from the GM – they decide to resist or not. In a PbtA game the push-back is from the moves – the GM cannot choose to trigger moves or not.

  23. This goes hand in hand with how “say yes or roll the dice” is not a thing in AW, or most AW based games, and should not be. Should be killed with fire.

    “This goes hand in hand with how “say yes or roll the dice is totally a thing in PbtA games but it’s important to know that’s its implemented differently.

    The decisions for the “or” part is shifted to the triggers instead of relying purely on the GMs judgement.”

    There, I fixed it for you.

  24. OK, so, I gotta chime in as a linguist and particularly as a linguist who’s not, like, a phonetician or whatever, but a Conversation Analysis person.

    I’m kinda straight-up fascinated by your description of what “the conversation” means to you here, after struggle, because I have no idea what an alternative would be. This is all “the conversation” ever could have meant to me about any RPG; all the stuff about to do it, do it and roll or say yes and picking up the dice to push back against the GM’s fiat or whatever are just specifics of how we turn a conversation into a game, but the Conversation still looms over all that. Am I off the mark, Paul Beakley? Am I off in my own world of linguistics jargon, and failing to read normal English?

  25. To complicate things further (1) somebody still has to make a judgment call about when a move is triggered, and (2) there are a number of pretty open-ended triggers (the “pocket crimes” of AW) like Do Something Under Fire and various MC moves that you can make for A Golden Opportunity or just in response to something a character said or did (including what you have NPCs say and do). This means that it’s great that the triggers are supposed to be explicit, but that there’s still a lot of judgment calls that have to be made.

  26. Brand Robins you say no even if a move is triggered? I know I’ve talked about it with players, but what usually happens is that the exact trigger is avoided – if a move says “when you touch the Idol of Kaltu-rah”, I go “so you’re just grabbing it, yeah” and they say “well, no, I’m a seasoned explorer, I’d throw my jacket over it and swaddle it like a child”. It’s not the same as “nope, no trigger cuz I said”.

  27. Is it possible that I’m the only person for which this is true, but the tone of AW of “other games are not a conversation” is exactly why I took so readily to it. At the time that I was first exposed to AW, I had almost quit RPGs altogether, because (with notably rare exceptions) all I knew were trad games and I had grown completely dissatisfied with the way many of them played.

    So when Vincent came around and said (to paraphrase), “this game isn’t like those. We’re not going to worry so much about the minutia of time or who’s exact turn it is. People will get to talk or do things when it makes sense for them to do so, and if it sometimes gets a little messy, or if people sometimes talk over each other…that’s ok. We’ll figure it out.” That was a mini-revelation to me because it gave me a lot more freedom to talk or act in ways that made sense rather than having to wait for my specific turn.

  28. Also, I’ll defend “highlighting stats” for XP until my dying breadth. Outside of highly specific methods like US’s “faction marking”, it remains what I consider to be the best method of generating XP because it allows the group to collectively decide what shape the game forms and constantly encourages players to drive narrative in that direction.

  29. Paul Beakley, ah, I see you now. Yes, in my academic world, it is a kind, but you’ve made the contrast clear.

    Now, I’m still left wondering where there is anything like a call-and-response structured RPG, but, I think we’re good. Not really germane, and we can drop this thread.

  30. Sometimes it can also totally suck to have to deal with Move X now because a player triggered it and everyone was kinda done with that scene. I don’t think the answer to this lies in the mechanics though – should just be talked about at the table probably.

    This means: sub

  31. Derrick Kapchinsky​ the concept of highlighting stats is great. That concept being “I want to see this kind of thing / this kind of response from your character.

    The implementation of tying that concept to stats, that are tied to rolls is where the breakdown is. It’s totally wrong for a game that’s supposed to be about the conversation.

    Like you can totally mark my Hot, because you want to see my character like that. I can totally do Hot out the yin yang and everyone thinks that was amazing and established so much about my character and their relationships…But I get no XPs for it unless I hit a trigger for a move tied to Hot.

    And that’s broken. It’s ruined nearly every campaign of AW I’ve been in. One shots fine, because “I don’t care about leveling up a character in a con game anyway” is S.O.P.

    But in a campaign, with all those juicy moves right there in the playbook that you want to get…Broken. Because now for any player actively seeking to acquire XPS it’s no longer about “just talk and I’ll let you know when you’ve triggered a move”. It’s “fuck no, I need 2 more XPs what do I need to do to trigger this move”

  32. T. Franzke – Sort of. While I’ve definitely been in that position of just wanting to move on while a move resolves, more often than not in my games, it’s had the opposite effect. There’ll be a lull in the scene, we’re almost ready to move on, and then somebody makes a move and the snowball either starts back up again or it intensifies and I’m right back in, in some cases much more invested in the new / continued direction that the scene has taken than I was originally.

  33. Marking Stat X isn’t really “I want you do be X”. It’s “I want you to trigger these specific Moves this session”. Treating it differently is just lying to yourself.

    The book isn’t really clear about this though.

  34. Aaron Griffin I am almost certain we are talking about “no to intended outcomes when no move has triggered”. If a move is triggered, the move “decides” the outcome or at least provides the script for the decision.

    But in the absence of a move, sure, I say no in one way or another to people all the time in PbtA games as GM, depending on circumstances and how hard a move it seems is called for. Its actually been the hardest thing for me to learn to do, because years of other games had taught me to say yes.

  35. I have had players in my group who run into the same mental blocks. I think the players who focus on the rolling of dice are really trying to ask “How do I win?” “How do I hack the system?” They want to know how to master the game using mathmatics and loop holes. Same situation with those who bend over backwards to stretch a move into their characters strong points.

    I’ve tried (and mostly failed) at trying to enlighten them into the idea that a failed roll does not mean failure, and that our goal in playing isn’t gain XP or improve stats written on a sheet. IMO some of our best session time didn’t involve dice. You can lead a horse to water….

  36. Ralph Mazza I’m not sure how “what do I need to do to trigger this move” is a failure state of the conversation as long as “to do it, you do it” is still the order of the day. Even if you’re intentionally pushing for moves, you’re still driving the conversation.

  37. T. Franzke that exact circumstance occurred with Last Breath in a Dungeon World game I was running, although in the end it didn’t suck at all, it was awesome. But it was definitely a situation where neither I as a GM, nor the player involved, really wanted the move to trigger and yet the trigger was clearly happening.

  38. Kit La Touche thank you! I’m glad I could trust you to get where I was going and I didn’t have to gird myself for two days of “no, jfc, trad roleplaying isn’t call-and-response” and variations thereof.

  39. In addition to T. Franzke’s “sometimes we don’t want to deal with the move right now,” there’s also that thing where you hit a trigger, but the move doesn’t help you process the fiction in any useful way. Or at least, not without you having to tweak the move or interpret the results in a kinda weird way. And sometimes in those cases, people just ignore that the trigger has been hit, especially if they have experience using the move and know that it won’t work very well.

    This almost happened to me recently, actually. We’re playing The Veil and the Divert move looks like this:

    When you engage with someone in an attempt to distract, misdirect, or otherwise direct attention to yourself or elsewhere, roll. On a 10+, pick 3. On a 7–9, pick 2.
    Your actions create an opportunity for you or someone else.
    You glean a flaw or weakness.
    They become confused or flustered.
    You’re able to slip away.

    I don’t remember the exact situation in the game, but only the first of those 4 options made any sense in terms of the action that the character was attempting. It’s not that the character didn’t want the others to happen; they were just irrelevant. So we could have just said “whatever” and winged it without the move, but I ended up suggesting “You’re able to slip away” meant that the corporations would find no evidence of their hacking and subterfuge, so we went with that. But that’s another type of situation where you might hit a trigger and decide not to use the move: because the move doesn’t make sense for what’s happening in the fiction. Sometimes that happens, even with well-written moves. It’s hard to predict every fictional situation in which a trigger might be hit.

  40. J. Walton I find “Discern Realities” often lead to this kind of situation in Dungeon World. It clearly triggers, but people look at the list of questions and say “yeah, none of this is working for me, what I really want to know is X”.

  41. Hans Messersmith Look Into Their Heart from SotI and pretty much all the “answer these questions but ONLY THESE QUESTIONS” moves end up being like that. I have no good solution other than to shrug and get the players to ask the most-useful questions, even if that’s not what they really wanted.

    This is probably the current hottest pain point in our home game.

  42. I really love the question/option lists, but writing them can be pretty tricky and some players have real trouble wrapping their brains around them. Part of the fun of them, IMO, is that they are imperfect tools that you have to “game” to get the information you really need to make choices. They are imperfect because getting information is sometimes difficult and the moves also leave room for the players to still use logic and strategy, rather than just giving them all the answers.

  43. J. Walton we had a situation in our Masks game where character A wanted to punch B. B didn’t intent to fight back but C was totally going in between them to stop this. So clearly that triggers defend but there was no aggression type Move that was triggered because there was no backfighting. Was a really strange situation.

  44. Aaron Griffin no, I say no when no move is triggered.

    So its like, “say whatever the fuxk you want to say, unless a move is triggered, then roll the dice.”

    (and hope the move applies, because wiggle word moves are wiggley)

  45. Ralph Mazza those PbtA games that only give XP for rolling… it drives me nuts when my GM says “Yeah, you can do that, no problem.” MOTHERFUCKER I WANNA ROLL DICE AND GET XP. FUCK NO CAN I DO IT NO PROBLEM.

  46. J. Walton – I agree! In fact, I often feel like the advanced versions of those moves that let you ask anything are kind of wastes because I have rarely felt like there wasn’t at least one or two of the listed questions that were applicable or basically what I wanted to know.

  47. But on the other hand, I played original Deadlands this past weekend. That is not a conversation. “I want to X.” “Do you have the X skill?” “Uh… that’s a skill? It’s just the sort of thing my guy would do.” “You can make an unskilled X check to do it.” “O… kay.”

  48. Keith Stetson the GM in the Pbta case there is clearly doing it wrong. We usually don’t care if you can do it no problem. We care if you trigger the move because we have decided, by using these rules, that those are not things one can’t do without problem. These things can always go wrong. And even if there is no way your toon would fail Maybe something outside of their control happens.

  49. T. Franzke The GM could be doing that wrong, but not necessarily so. Remember, there also has to be uncertainty for moves to trigger. if “there’s no why your toon would fail”, then it would betray the fiction to introduce uncertainty mechanically where none exists fictionally

  50. What a wonderful thread.

    Would you guys say the advice of “Elide the action sometimes” is a form of say yes? I’m talking about the idea where you leave a battle half finished and jump to the end, or maybe a month later. Not always so galling either. Maybe everyone camps down for the night and the MC jumps to the next evening.

    When you move the fiction around in time and reframe a situation, aren’t you in someways saying yes? Or atleast you are identifying an upcoming lull where playing the moves out might be boring so you’re jumping forward to the heart of the conflict.

  51. Aaron Berger well…that sounds like the gm/mc making that call about their own activities. I’m not sure that framing is in the same zip code as “say yes.”

  52. I think you’re right Paul Beakley, I might be reaching. Say yes can still wholly effect the fiction, which is different from skipping content. I guess my point was that if I’m rolling my eyes at playing out a move, it reveals to me that the main conflict is else where and i should get the players there as fast as possible.

  53. Man. The whole point of the list-of-question moves is that they don’t contain every question you might want to ask. This is exactly what is so great about them. They’re an epistemic model of the fictional world: they constrain what is knowable through what methods. They place emphasis on different things, they suggest lacunae in human empathy… they shape what actions the PCs can and can not take with what level of confidence. Whenever I hear some MC be like ‘oh I just let them ask whatever’ I want to cry.

  54. I should clarify that I’m on your side! I like the constraints as well. I didn’t really express my thoughts very well there.

    It’s a pain point for my players but not for me. 👹

  55. Well, that and sometimes game designer make shitty pick lists that give you constraints that are certainly constraining, but not necessarily in any interesting way.

    Well done limited pick lists are a beauty. Unfortunately, many are not so well done.

    Though this does bring up a related point — often when invoking a move it’s helpful to consider not just the trigger, but the possible fictional outcomes, especially for moves with pick lists.

    Like, if nothing you can pick as a result of doing the move is going to make sense, advance the game, or snowball — you probably aren’t actually doing the move.

  56. Brand Robins With you until the last line: you might actually be doing the move (following everything as intended) but maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. I think we sometimes tend to blame the players here, but often they’re doing their best to play by the rules. Thankfully in those cases you can still revert to talky freeform or customize the move (as a one-time ruling or permanently).

  57. This is an awesome thread.

    I want to address a few things.

    GM’s don’t have to say yes when no moves are triggered. The moved are designed to guide the fiction to what is interesting. If you have a horror game that does not have a violence move it doesn’t mean that the players can’t try to punch the zombie. It just means that it’s not what’s supposed to be interesting in this fiction. I didn’t write this game for you to go punch zombies. This is a game about fear and I fucking designed it that way. So you go to punch a zombie and the GM might say. It’s head comes off but there’s another one behind it, or the GM might say it is unperturbed by your silly punch and bites your arm now roll to resist THE STRAIN! If the players are doing things that don’t move toward triggers for moves it’s MY job as GM to make things happen that allow them to do so. If my horror game that has no violence move has a Run Away move… then it’s time to use that instead. Make that a priority for the players. Fighting them isn’t working… RUN! It’s not about saying “yes” or ‘no” when things come up with no move. It’s about how I steer the game towards the moves I as GM want to see. If the player wants to negotiate in this game but there’s no negotiate move but there’s a lot of violence and desperate action moves then I’ll have the person he’s trying to negotiate act so that everything goes that way. Maybe he takes offence to your offer of negotiation and starts to beat you with the weapons he took off you when you came to negotiate in peace. Here come the moves. As a game designer of PbtA games the moves should only BE in the game at all if THAT is what you want to see the players doing. The Warren doesn’t really have a do violence move. That’s because I don’t want to see rabbits fighting each other or gearing up to take down the hunters. I want to see them scared. I want to see what happens when they panic.


    Moves are what the game is about. When players do things that don’t trigger moves it’s the GM’s job to steer the game toward the moves. The intention of PbtA moves are that THOSE MOVES are what we want to see.

  58. Holy shit this thread. Dispensing all the plus’s.

    I really dig your alternative perspective on “The Conversation” being an atypical method of play. And how moves are the exception to the standard procedures of the game. Definitely going to use some of these phrasings if I teach PTBA again.

  59. Hmm…I’ve just run my first PbtA game (Monster of the Week: two sessions. I need to think about this for next time; the post is timely for me. Actually, running it was rather straightforward, and a lot of my PbtA worries (mainly the GM moves. But those were easy and even useful as it turns out) were for nothing, but it could come smoother; triggering the player Moves has been slightly clunky and I’ve been over-using it.

  60. Keith Stetson​ yeah it’s a long list: Uncharted Worlds, Legacy, Headspace, The Sprawl all come to mind as well.

    Edit: I see you were replying to the other Paul!

  61. Keith Stetson why would you consider DW to have “moves as tools”? I don’t play/run it that way at all, and I admit when I have played with GM’s that run it in a way that seems like what you are talking about (for example, treating Defy Danger a catch all skill roll move instead of actually paying attention to its trigger) it drove me up a wall.

    Do you think it is intrinsic to the game? Is it written somewhere in the rules I have missed/forgotten?

    This may be too specific for this thread, Paul Beakley , tell me to take it elsewhere if you want.

  62. Hans Messersmith no it’s cool but we’re also nearly 80 posts in.

    I’ve been thinking about tackling the subject myself but it seems to heat up in a bad way fast.

  63. I would say the method of play is reversed from other varieties of PbtA. Instead of describing character actions and then realizing “Oh, I just trigged X move,” those games seem to encourage players to say “Huh, what should I do? Oh, I could use move X.” I don’t know that the games say to do this explicitly, but based on the play I’ve seen it seems pretty well baked into the moves.

  64. Huh, Keith Stetson that’s interesting. I’ve never ran it that way, and usually encourage players (for example, if I run at a con) to not think that way you describe when playing DW. Huh.

  65. Hans Messersmith I think it’s not uncommon to feel the pull toward this treatment, which is why there is (imo) so much interest in the DW branch of PbtA.

    My next big game is going to be Space Wurm vs Moonicorn so this subject has been on my mind a lot. I’m not totally sure where the hack lies, but it sure looks like the vast majority of moves are player facing tools, with good old Defy Danger being the one, maybe only, move in the set that players might walk into.

    I mean, you just don’t corner yourself into Volley or Hack and Slash the way you might with Seize Control or Go Aggro.

  66. Hans Messersmith it sounds like you’re on firm conceptual ground. Not sure what there is to gain other than the smug satisfaction that you’re doing it right.

    The place where the disagreeing usually starts is when I point out that moves aren’t skills. Except in DW, where they frequently are.

  67. Paul Beakley Eh, just trying to draw a parallel between where DW and it’s ilk seem to want to go and what MYZ/Coriolis/Tales from the Loop are.

    Moves as player facing skills works fine in my book, and I know you’re a fan of MYZ, so I was hoping to sort of “bridge the gap” or something. It wasn’t really a fully formed idea. /shrug

  68. I think it’s “moves as tools” I’m trying to take a half step away from in MotW. Moves as tools feels fine to me for the Playbook-specific Moves the players choose, but less so for the standard Hunter Moves, which feel like they ought to come out of the conversation.

    (I feel a bit out of my depth here to be honest. My recent games of MotW and being a player in a few sessions of Uncharted Worlds last year are my only PbtA experiences so far, though I should solve all that at a PbtA specific convention in a couple of weeks.)

  69. William Nichols a small convention in my home town of Sheffield, with about 40 attendees (so teeny tiny, just how I like my RPG conventions).


    I’m signed up to play an all day game of Apocalypse World 2e, with character and shared world creation done in advance (and which therefore gets me really excited), and a Werewolf pack dynamics game. I’m also running a two session game of Blades in the Dark (which is just about “Apocalypse World” enough).

  70. Pretty interesting stuff. I never took AW’s “this is a conversation” as prescriptive – rather, it’s a reminder that the rules of conversation (e.g. listen carefully when others talk, ask & answer questions, and try to make sure everyone gets heard) are part of what we do. At a more basic level, it’s the truism that this is what games are: don’t forget that, after all, when we play all it is is us talking to each other.

  71. I have a fairly controversial opinion (apparently!) on how moves are “triggered”. I think that sometimes they’re things you just do (“hey, I want to make this move here”), sometimes they’re things which we must engage because they describe the fiction happening (“if you do it, make with the dice”), and sometimes we choose them carefully because we like putting an emphasis on this moment in the fiction, and the possible outcomes are interesting to us.

  72. Pretty much every PbtA game I’ve seen (maybe with the exception of Murderous Ghosts) does all three in different proportions, and it’s different for each move.

    For example, spending hold from a move is explicitly “when you want to, just do it”. “When you offer Mercer a gift,” is almost 100% triggered by the fiction. “Acting under fire”, though, is a tool for the MC to disclaim responsibility sometimes, and it’s almost always a judgement call in the moment – you bring it in when you think bringing it in will be fun.

    I don’t think there’s a “right answer” here. It’s all these things.

  73. (If you don’t agree with my “acting under fire” example – I admit it’s not bulletproof – consider moves like Oftener Right or Eager to Know. If you apply that move every time someone takes or offers advice, in every single conversation, you’ll end up in a quagmire. Instead, you apply it to mark a moment when something seems meaningful and you’d like to see it feature later, as a way of signaling this to the other players, and the +1 helps it “stick”, so we don’t forget later.)

    (Same goes for the way most people use the “harm move” – it’s not rolled every time someone’s hurt, but when we want to “zoom in” on that moment and lend it some extra weight.)

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