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Designing Moves: Triggers Versus Effects
July 24, 2014

THE GEARS OF GAME DESIGN FOREVER CHURN ONWARDMoves in any “Powered by the Apocalypse” game have two main components: the trigger, and the effect. “When you do X” is the trigger, and “then Y happens” is the effect. For the moves to work well, they have to snowball, meaning that every move needs to lead to a change in the fiction that will then lead to another move shortly down the road. If a move, through its trigger and its effect, fails to change the fiction significantly, then it won’t snowball.

The important thing here, though, is that both the trigger and the effect can contribute to the snowball.

I’ve been working on Masks, my Powered by the Apocalypse hack for young superhero stories, and one of the primary moves involved is “Label another Mask.” This is the move for when one young superhero (a Mask) calls another a Danger, or a Freak, or a Hero, and it changes the other’s self-image. It’s key to Masks, but it’s also been pretty difficult to get just right. The effects of the move, due to the Labels system I’m playing with in Masks, have been largely cosmetic or mechanical, but not fictional – I can change your self-image, and by doing so change your stats, but that doesn’t actually change anything explicit in the fiction. It doesn’t snowball if all it does is change the stats.

Trying to figure out the issue led me to examine other moves from other Powered by the Apocalypse games – in particular, I took a hard look at the “Turn Someone On” move from Monsterhearts. “Turn Someone On” does have some snowball effects at the 7-9 level of success, things like “You give yourself to them.” But a full success on “Turn Someone On” would actually get you 1 String from the other person, and that’s it. Strings can lead to great, interesting, snowballing fiction down the road, but right in that immediate moment, after you succeeded as well as you possibly could at turning someone on, the effect of the move is a simple transaction of a meta-level resource. So why doesn’t that move face the same difficulties as “Label someone”? Why does it seem to successfully snowball?

The answer is the trigger of the move. “Turning Someone On” requires action which is already tense, interesting, fascinating, and emotional. What’s more, simply by saying that the move is trigger, a spotlight is shone upon the action. Triggering the move both necessitates interesting action, and makes sure that no one at the table can ignore that action. The character might ignore the in-fiction attempt at arousal, but since everyone’s attention is focused in on the attempt now, that act of ignorance is itself interesting, tense, fascinating, and so on. So the effect of the move doesn’t necessarily have to generate a fictional snowball – that’s built into the move’s trigger.

When you’re designing a new move, it’s worth thinking about which category it falls into. Is it the kind of move that is designed to put emphasis on the effect, to spin out interesting, snowballing fiction based on “what happens next”? Or is it the kind of move that spotlights interesting fiction that just happened, making sure everyone is paying attention? A lot of moves are examples of the former, and far fewer are examples of the latter, but that doesn’t make the latter category any less important.