Apocalypse World: Guide to Hard Moves

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I keep seeing some people struggle with this, so here's a handy guide to hard moves in Apocalypse World.

When you make a regular MC move, all three:
1. It follows logically from the fiction.
2. It gives the player an opportunity to react.
3. It sets you up for a future harder move.

This means, say what happens but stop before the effect, then ask "What do you do?"

- He swings the chainsaw right at your head. What do you do?
- You sneak into the garage but there's Plover right there, about to notice you any second now. What do you do?
- She stares at you coldly. 'Leave me alone,' she says. What do you do?

When you make a hard MC move, both:
1. It follows logically from the fiction.
2. It's irrevocable.

This means, say what happens, including the effect, then ask "What do you do?"

- The chainsaw bites into your face, spraying chunks of bloody flesh all over the room. 3-harm and make the harm move!
- Plover sees you and starts yelling like mad. Intruder!
- 'Don't come back here again.' She slams the door in your face and you hear the locks click home

See how that works? The regular move sets up the hard move. The hard move follows through on the threat established by the regular move.

I've seen people struggle with hard moves in the moment. Like, when the dice miss, the MC stares at it like, "Crap! Now I have to invent something! Better make it dangerous and cool! Uh... some ninja... drop out of the ceiling... with poison knives! Grah!"

Don't do that. Instead, when it's time for a hard move, look back at the setup move(s) you made. What was threatened? What was about to happen, before the PC took action? Follow through on that. Bring the effects on screen. Bring the consequences to fruition.

And speaking of consequences, a hard move doesn't automatically equate to severe consequences. The severity of the threat is a separate issue, depending wholly on the fiction as established. The hard move means the consequences, large or small, take full effect now.

It's not about being mean, or punishing a missed roll, or inventing new trouble. It's about giving the fiction its full expression. Setup, follow-through. Action, consequences.



Blogger Kit says:  

Yes. I ran AW for the first time the other night, and I think that the book did, for me anyway, a good job of making this clear. What struck me particularly is that, as the GM, you never roll for things to happen. As such, the way you make things happen as the GM is you (a) set it up. (b) ask for player reaction. (c) enact it based on the results of the player action. Which is probably just a less-clear way to say what you say here.

Blogger Jonathan Walton says:  

Yup. That's a really great and helpful way of putting it, John.

Blogger Johnstone says:  

That's a really handy breakdown.

Blogger Jason Morningstar says:  

Please continue to rewrite this game!

Blogger Ry St says:  

This is great advice.

Blogger Michael Pfaff says:  

This is fantastic advice that should have been in the original book!

Blogger Matt Wilson says:  

Yes, awesome. Hard moves shouldn't really surprise anyone.

The D&D version is "here comes a boulder, rolling at you. Make a reflex save."

"Oh no, I rolled a 1."

"Too bad! The boulder totally rolls over you and you take 3 hp damage!"

The DM does not say, "Goblins jump out of the boulder and take you hostage."

Blogger Guns_n_Droids says:  

3hp boulders? is it #DungeonLords or its just long ago?

Anonymous Wightbred says:  

I definitely think there is an element of trying to be clever when I've had a problem with this. I want to add interesting Goblins rather than just the obvious boulder roll. But as Graham says in play unsafe: "be obvious" and most of the time it will turn out cool.

Blogger Bicycle Records says:  

I am really excited about goblins in boulders.

Blogger goblintriggers says:  

I'm coming at this a bit late. Which is a shame, with all this talk about goblins.

In the article, John drew the distinction between the severity of the threat and the consequences taking effect.

The question I want to bring to the table is the interplay between the two, in a non-linear medium such as roleplaying: what happens if the stakes are too high?

What if paying the consequences is career-ending for the PC?

I remember a good example in a talk by Will Wright. It's that scene in Indiana Jones in which a large boulder almost rolls over him. (Why do good examples always have boulders? And goblins of course. Gotta have goblins)

Will Wright commented that in a linear narrative such as this, the viewer is aware of the probability space. We are acutely aware, even at a subconscious level, of what would happen if the boulder rolls over him. This creates dramatic tension. Of course in film, things are happening too fast for the audience to rationalise, and disbelieve what they're watching.

In roleplaying, we don't have that luxury. We are also presented with an even more difficult challenge. Let's say the player fails that check. I have a problem with him getting away with 3hp damage. I feel it ruins my fictional landscape, my players' imagined probability space.

I think that a huge boulder rolling over you kills you - that's the only credible result.

So, from a design standpoint, what do you do ?

Vincent Baker wrote an article a while ago, called "A Small Thing About Character Death" (over at http://lumpley.com/hardcore.html ) in which he states "PCs, like protagonists in fiction, don't get to die to show what's at stake or to escalate conflict. They only get to die to make final statements. Character death can never be a possible outcome moment-to-moment."

I understand where he's coming from, but at the same time I feel that having death hanging over the players' heads like a probability-space-Damocles'-sword is too valuable to dismiss entirely.

What are your thoughts?
Can you have a system that:
a. will allow you to not hesitate escalating to something like a rolling boulder, in order to build tension.
b. will not undermine that "probability space" by downplaying what seemed like a deadly threat into a 3hp damage.
c. avoids the pitfall of "random deaths", that seem abrupt from a narrative point of view.

I guess what I'm asking is, can you have your cake and eat it too.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Yes, of course! Not only can you have it, you can have it easily.

The basic method is to ask questions and elaborate until there's clarity to invoke the system. It's a conversation, right? You ask questions, you assess the fiction, you make it clear to the players what the characters know (and don't know) and they make choices.

This is all mediated by the expectations of the type of fiction at hand: Is it wahoo action-adventure? Grim, perilous danger? Farcical romp?

In other words, you 1) set expectations, 2) invoke the system, then 3) follow through on the results.

Every functional RPG system works that way.

When you get "random deaths" that seem abrupt, it's usually because #1 has been glossed over too vaguely, forgotten, or assumed and left unspoken. A lively, productive conversation (the essence of RPG play) keeps this from happening.

"You have literally NO IDEA what will happen if you snatch that idol and run. Are you sure you want to do that?"
"You're taking a crazy risk!"
"I know! I'm a crazy risk taker![1] Let's do it."
"Okay, here we go!"

In some systems (3:16, say), that character is now a die-roll away from death. But everyone knows it, and we all lean forward and hold our breath and watch the dice tumble. On a miss, yeah, maybe the giant boulder squashes them flat, the end.

In other systems (SotC, say), the character has a huge safety net under them all the time so we know this roll is really about how much or how little trouble the character is about to get into. On a miss, yeah, they might take harm (there's no way to die from one hit) and now there's a boulder chasing them -- they have a new problem to escape from, and some problematic aspects introduced into the scene.

Either way, there's nothing abrupt or random going on. The fictional situation has been brought to life during the conversation, the player has made an informed choice (or understands they're making a choice without all the information) everyone understands the genre we're playing in, and everyone is clear on the system before it's brought to bear.

Make sense?

[1]This reminds me of another rant I need to write about: How so many gamers create characters that are crazy risk-takers at heart (dungeon raiders, say) and then play them like timid, risk-averse, weenies. Ugh.

Blogger goblintriggers says:  

John, thanks for the reply. It must have been a while since you wrote this. But I'm glad I remembered to check again. This has been a design question of mine for a while now, and i think you hit the nail in the head (very eloquently too) speaking about expectations and how the system goes about evoking tension/handling the subject matter. i found your post extremely helpful, thanks.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Cool. Glad it was helpful.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

This post distills a lot of stuff from the AW book in such a clear way that I shudder. I love (and I mean absolutely love) Vincent's tone and writing in AW, but if there's ever a 2nd edition he could use you as an editor to get some stuff across without head-scratches.

Blogger Euan says:  

This is probably a bit of post necromancy, but I figured I'd have my two cents worth ;) I used to have problems with the "bottomless pit" situation in RPGs; the succeed or die, or succeed or be brought to a total halt (finding clues, interrogating people and searching for secret doors all fell under the same banner).

It was ages before I realised that the solution was to make the issue something other than, "Can you jump across the bottomless pit?" It was actually, "Can you find the secret door before the goblin patrol emerges from it and surprises you" or "Can you jump across the pit without losing some important piece of equipment you might need later". Such a simple thing and yet so liberating :D

Blogger Jmz_th_Fish says:  

The thing is, there's always a choice in AW. Even with death, you can choose for your character to die outright, or you can survive as another character type. The events of the game are never outside of the player's control, and they know it (on some level).

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