Apocalypse World: Crossing the Line

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'm seeing a trend in some of the custom moves people are making for Apocalypse World. Basically, some moves are "crossing the line" regarding what the players' role is and what the MC's role is. I think it's a bit of a problem, so I'm writing this post to lay out my thinking.

The Line
In Apocalypse World, the players are in charge of their characters. What they say, what they do; what they feel, think, and believe; what they did in their past. The MC is in charge of the world: the environment, the NPCs, the weather, the psychic maelstrom.

Sometimes, the players say things that get very close to the line. Usually this happens when the MC asks a leading question.

MC: "Nero, what do the slave traders use for barter?"
Player: "Oh man, those fuckers? They use human ears."

That's a case of the player authoring part of the world outside their character, however -- and this is critical -- they do it from within their character's experience and frame of reference. When Nero answers that question, he's telling something he knows about the world.

Compare that exchange with this one, which is crossing the line:

MC: "Okay, Nero, so you get the box of barter away from the slave traders and haul into the back of the truck."
Player: "Cool. I open it up."
MC: "Okay. What do you see when you open it?"
Player: "Um... uh, a bunch of severed fingers?"

See the difference? In the first case, the MC is addressing the character and asking about some knowledge he has. In the second case, the MC is fully turning over authorship of the world in-the-moment to the player, which is not part of the player role in AW.

Moves That Cross the Line
So, given that, we can look at a custom move and see if it's crossing the line. Is the move asking the player to fulfill the authorship role of the MC? In my opinion, if the answer is 'yes', it's not a good move. Let's look at some examples.

Here's a custom move from the book that approaches the line:

When you go into Dremmer’s territory, roll+sharp. On a 10+, you can spot and avoid ambush. On a 7–9, you spot the ambush in time to prepare or flee. On a miss, you blunder into it.

At face value, it might look like the player is authoring the world in-the-moment, determining if there's an ambush or not. But this move is rooted in what the character does and the effect it has. By making this move, the player isn't deciding what Dremmer and his people do, that's the purview of the MC. The move is determining how well the PC deals with what Dremmer already has in motion (i.e. lying in ambush for trespassers).

For contrast, here's a custom move that crosses the line:

When you try to deal with the rat-men, roll+hot. On a 10+, they'll listen to what you have to say. On a 7-9, they'll listen, but choose 1:- they're drug-crazed and seeing visions
- they're arming up for war on the tunnelers
- they're starving for blood and demand some right now
See how that move asks the player to author the game world in-the-moment? There's no opportunity for another player to have any say. The player says what they do, then rolls the dice, then says what the NPCs do, then says what he does about it. Not only is this crossing the line into the MC's arena of authorship, it's also a huge bore for everyone else.

In various custom move threads around the web, I'm seeing moves that cross the line like that. They ask the player to initiate the action and then also author the outcome. That structure makes for a boring move and also a confused player who's asked to do things that fall under the MC's role.

Here's a simple fix that improves that move:

When you try to deal with the rat-men, roll+hot. On a 10+, they'll listen to what you have to say. On a 7-9, they'll listen, but the MC chooses 1:
- they're drug-crazed and seeing visions
- they're arming up for war
- they're starving for blood and demand some right now

That's pretty obvious, right? Instead of the player choosing what the NPCs do, the MC does (I also dropped 'on the tunnelers' from the war choice, so the MC can decide in-the-moment who the rat-men are going to fight).

Here's another way to do it, with the player still choosing, without crossing the line:

When you try to deal with the rat-men, roll+hot. On a 10+, they'll listen to what you have to say. On a 7-9, they'll listen if you prove yourself. Choose 1:
- you consume their vile drug and have visions with them
- you give them some intel on their enemies
- you let them taste your blood (1-harm ap)

Similar choices, but all written as actions the character takes.

Hopefully that all makes sense. "Crossing the line" isn't the end of the world in a custom move, but it's something to be on the lookout for. Keeping moves on the player-role side of the line will help make them sharper and stronger in play.

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Blogger Sage says:  

Would you say this crosses the line? At PAX some players from your game suggested to me that "bad stuff" should be chosen by the GM, for similar reasons to why moment-to-moment world creation is GM stuff.

Undertake a Perilous Journey (Con)
When you travel through hostile territory, roll+Con.
7-9: Choose 1
10+: Your journey is uneventful.
You’re running low on food
You’re running low on adventuring supplies
You’re badly fatigued and need rest
You’ve lost your way or are separated from your
You’ve encountered a monster that regards this territory
as its own

Blogger Brendan says:  

Can you elaborate a little on how this line relates to MC love letters, like the ones in the setup for Hatchet City? Obviously in that case the player isn't initiating the action, but they are very much about world-authorship by selection (how well Ambergrease is positioned, whether Dustwich is a threat, etcetera).

Blogger John Harper says:  

Ha! That's funny because I wrote the original version of that move. :)

Here are two alternate versions that are stronger, IMO.

When you travel through hostile territory, roll+Con. On a 10+, you avoid hardship in the wild and reach your destination. On a 7-9, choose one:
- You reach your destination but you took a longer route to avoid trouble. You're out of food when you arrive.
- You reach your destination but you took a trickier route to avoid trouble. You're out of adventuring supplies when you arrive (torches, rope, etc.)
- You reach your destination but you took a harder route to avoid trouble. You need rest when you arrive.
- You avoid trouble by forging a new path around it, but now you've lost your way.
- You reach your destination, but you didn't avoid trouble along the way. Something has followed you.
- You've run into trouble, but you'll deal with it now. The destination can wait.


When you travel through hostile territory, roll+Con. On a 10+, you avoid hardship in the wild and reach your destination. On a 7-9, you reach your destination but the MC chooses one:
- You're out of food when you arrive.
- You're out of adventuring supplies when you arrive.
- You're fatigued and need rest when you arrive.
- You've been followed to your destination.

I think getting lost or running into a monster are probably hard moves to make if they miss the roll.

Blogger John Harper says:  

@Brendan: Yes, the love letters are a really interesting case! They break out of the normal move structure, for sure.

Consider first that the love letters themselves cross a line. They're letters from the MC (the person at the table) to the character. This is weird and fun! It's a signal that things are a bit askew, and what happens in a love letter is a bit outside of normal play.

Obviously, the character is not receiving the letter in the game world. But neither are the players (as themselves) making the choices in the letter moves. They're making the choices in-character, almost.

It's a weird middle ground that muddles up MC/player authorship and also in-game/out-of-game concerns. It works in small doses.

Blogger Brand Robins says:  


While I agree with most of what you're saying, the example with the Ratmen gets me wrong for a different reason -- it's dull.

Well, maybe dull is unfair, but its all about color in a way that doesn't really spark off or cause immediate and obvious reaction.

When you roll to seize by force and are picking your 7-9 things you're picking hard consequences and you know pretty much how they're going to turn out. You can see before you even start choosing how the moves are going to snowball.

But with the rats, it's like 10+ you win, 7-9 maybe you win but chose come color that doesn't obviously tell you what is going on or give a direct path to something else interesting.

The rats are drug crazed? Well, that's cool color, but...um... so what? How does that effect what comes next? How does it affect my character? These things aren't clear, don't instantly spark. It replaces hard choices with clear results with a way to pick color that doesn't clearly communicate a value, a choice, a scarcity, or much of anything else.

Compare that to Dremmer's move on a level of directness and obvious consequence rather than on a level of who is saying what about what part of the fiction. In one you get to chose some color, in the other you're getting shot in the head.

Also, I think more folks need to look at the difference between Seize By Force (chose how you get screwed vs screw others) and Go Aggro (where the GM choses what happens).

Blogger John Harper says:  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger John Harper says:  

(I revised this comment)

Yeah, Brand, I agree. The first version of the rat-men move is kind of dull. I do think "they demand blood right now" is pretty clear, and shows a clear course of action, but I won't quibble too much. The first version of the move is weak.

I might even argue that a line-crossing move structure enables the dullness you're talking about, but I haven't thought that through yet.

I think the final version of the rat-men move is pretty hot, though. :)

Blogger Ben Wray says:  

Obviously, the character is not receiving the letter in the game world.

Oh, man, that gives me a great idea for a game where the world's psychic maelstrom is the broken shards of the fourth wall. AUGURY.

Blogger Unknown says:  

Yeah, this is definitely a thing that I hadn't really been aware of until last night's game. The thing is, some moves, like the perilous journey above, there's an easy way to tie it into what the players control. Like, if you choose "you're running low on food", it's easy to imagine how that came about. So it's not always clear in play that a line has been crossed. I'm going to try to watch this more closely in the future.

Blogger Brendan says:  

@Ben: Jesus, you really do just come up with this stuff without breaking a sweat, don't you?

Anonymous Piers says:  

It's interesting that past-ness is one of the ways to avoid this line crossing. With Love Letters for instance, if you frame the question as "what happened" and direct it at the character, then the tone changes completely.

It's like the thing with the ears and the fingers--there was a moment when the character found out that it was ears that they took, and if the question had been framed at that moment ("They pin him to the ground, and then what do they do?") you'd have the same disjunctive effect as with the box of fingers. Conversely, if you frame the question about what was in the box as retrospective--the characters are sitting in a bar, talking to each other--then it might not cross the line.

What this suggests is that the place of mixed authority in these traditional games is the past--players and GMs are both responsible for determining a character's back story and the world it occurred in. Fortunately, this isn't usually a problem, because the past is, well, ... past.

Blogger Sage says:  

I knew you wrote that move, John. :) I wanted to see how your perception of your own work has changed.

Those are both good takes on the move, and the second in particular lines up with some of the feedback I've been given, that bad stuff should be chosen by the GM.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

I see a lot of similar line-crossing (in my opinion) going on in the way "Ask questions" gets used. Rather than asking leading questions to define the setting, they are loaded with presumptions with which the MC defines the character.

"Have you ever gotten into any trouble in this town?" vs. "What was the name of that person you killed the last time you came through this town?" for instance.

Anonymous Ben Robbins says:  

John: +1 Insightful

Anonymous Simon JB says:  

When I MC the game I think I do quite a bit of this crossing the line, and I'm pretty sure it's good for our game. Like asking "who did you kill last time you were here" or "why do you owe her your life". One reason is because this helps make the characters' lives not boring by tying them into the stuff around them, and another is that **because** our authorities are so clearly defined, we are safe enough so we can reach across that line with an invitation, like a dance step that's risky but rewarding.

That said, every example of 'better' and 'worse' custom moves here, I agree with!

Blogger John Harper says:  

Hey Simon,

Yes, asking leading questions is very good! The game advocates that, and I'm not saying otherwise (see my bit about the human ears as barter). Your questions are an example of productive line-crossing.

What I'm saying is, a PC move shouldn't cross the line. It's weak when one person initiates, resolves, and colors-in all by themselves. There's a reason the moves in the book "bounce back and forth" in terms of who says what.

Blogger Jamie says:  

So, looking back on Lady Blackbird with this lens - any thoughts? As written, it encourages line crossing, right? "The fire probably spreads out of control, doesn't it?" But LB could be played without line crossing - make the fire spreading out of control something the GM does in escalation...and "Does anything break when you try this crazy maneuver?" could be changed to "What's the risk of trying this crazy maneuver?"
Would you play LB differently now, or is it a different kettle?

Blogger John Harper says:  

Different kettle. This post is 100% about Apocalypse World, not about games in general.

Also, when I say line-crossing is weak in AW, I mean specifically within PC moves. Asking leading and provocative questions is a key thing in AW (like it is in LB) and is good!

Blogger Jamie says:  

Though you did say for the MC "Okay. What do you see when you open it?" is crossing the line and I like that. And Simon's "who did you kill last time you were here" or "why do you owe her your life" don't cross the line either: PC pasts are on the player side of the line.

You've crystallized something I'd been feeling may towards in my head - I can run an improv collaborative-story game with a bunch of chip-on-their-shoulder trad gamers (at some kind of pickup game, perhaps) as long as I recognize the line. While "Does the fire spread out of control?" might be met with "How should I know? You're the GM." or "What - *I* get to decide? Well then: no, no it doesn't, we keep it totally contained." from trad gamers, I can 'trick' them into collaborating by making it part of PC knowledge or PC past. "So, Cyrus, you've been to Haven before. Where's the best place to go for this kind of information?"

Anonymous Simon JB says:  

John, right, I thought I saw you saying that the MC shouldn't cross into player territory either, and that's what confused me vàv the leading questions. But my reading was teh weak, I'm with you now.

Jamie, I think you're right about how to work with trad gamers to have teh fun.

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