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Picking the Right GM Move in PbtA: Part Two
March 31, 2016

You can read part 1 here.

Picking the Right GM Move in PbtA Part 2Navigating the Territory

In the first post of this series, I talked a lot about harder moves and softer moves, how to make them, and what those terms mean. I argued that any move can be made harder or softer, and that there’s no quick and easy rule to figure out when exactly to make a harder or softer move—it’s the GM’s job to make that judgment call. I ended the piece by saying:

There’s a flow to the moves, yes, but they are rooted in the principles and agendas of each game, not in a rote, repeated algorithm; not solely in the dice.”

Talking about GM moves as requiring more than rote input/output forces us to talk about the actual requirements of good moves—and good hard moves in particular. Most Powered by the Apocalypse games say that on a miss, the GM gets to make as hard a move as they like—but how hard should they like it? And exactly what should their move look like? The principles and agendas will guide them, sure, but that’s still an awful lot of open territory for a GM to navigate.

The key to answering exactly what the move should look like and how irrevocably hard you should make it lies in another understanding of hardness with moves—the dramatic hard move. Understanding how dramatic your move should be will tell you exactly what kind of move you should make, and how irrevocable it should be.

Another Way of Understanding “Hardness”

We talk about harder and softer moves in terms of irrevocability to communicate to new GMs that, yes, you can make hard moves that make things happen without giving the PCs a chance to intervene right then and there. You can say “Photovore destroys your house” after a missed move to defend the house—it’s a harder move, but it’s still on the spectrum.

But there’s another side to making a “hard move”: hard as emotional hardness, dramatic hardness. It’s the difference between, “Superman gets punched through a building!” And “Lois tells Superman that he’s not the hero she thought he was!”

In the example from the last piece, Grasshopper missed on her roll to pierce the mask of the Spider. I could have the Spider open fire at her, and start up a big ol’ fight scene. I could even go straight to saying that she’s hit with his first shot, and caught out in the open as the bullets start to fly—that’s a relatively hard, irrevocable move. Sure.

The Janus, MasksBut making the move where the Spider reveals that he has captured her sister? That’s way harder—not in terms of irrevocability, but in terms of dramatic weight. Even I, as GM, am gonna feel that one—I like Grasshopper’s sister! I don’t want her to be in danger! But also I do, because I’m the audience to this story, too, and it’s the right hard move to make the scene dramatic and entertaining, especially in accordance with the principles, the agendas, and the Janus’s particular issues.

So the principles and agendas of the game point GMs towards the interesting and hard dramatic moves, instead of simply couching things in terms of irrevocability. Which suggests that there are two ways we’ve been looking at and talking about hardness in our conversations throughout these books and across the Internet:

  • Irrevocability, where a harder move greatly changes the world without opportunity for intervention.
  • Drama, where a harder move hits them where it hurts.

It’s harder and more irrevocable to say that Photovore crushes Hornet’s hand, than it is to say that Photovore is smashing the building and threatening the people inside—in both cases, Photovore does something without Hornet being able to react, but one of those moves affects the fiction much more directly and decisively than the other.

But it might be harder and more dramatic to say that Hornet can hear those people screaming as Photovore smashes apart their building—especially if I up the ante: say some of them see her on the rooftop, look at her pleadingly and ask for help. And if Hornet has been struggling with her own sense of failure as a hero…then this move is the hardest of all.

How to Make Dramatic Hard Moves

So if we understand that when a GM gets to make “as hard a move as they like,” the game means both that they get to make as irrevocable and as dramatic a move as they like, then two questions arise: How do you make dramatic hard moves, and how do you choose exactly how dramatic they should be? Let’s focus on the first question.

First of all, it’s easy to keep pointing at the agendas, principles, and moves of the game as an answer. They’re going to tell you what is and isn’t dramatically appropriate in your game—for example, borrowing from the first part of this series, in Masks it runs up against one of the principles of the game to make the move that the Spider murders your brother in cold blood. It seems like a dramatic move, and it is, but it’s dramatically inappropriate for Masks.

After the agendas, principles, and moves of the game, look to these factors:

  • The surprise of the move
  • The target of the move
  • The consequences of the move

Surprise

The Bull, MasksA move’s surprise is how intensely shocking it is. But it can’t be from left field—a good surprising move has to be exactly surprising enough to be unexpected, and exactly predictable enough that it feels obvious in retrospect. Think of it like the Sixth Sense twist—it makes perfect sense in retrospect, but it was still a surprise the very moment it was revealed. Shocking and inevitable.

Here’s an example from Masks: Toro (the destructive Bull) breaks into a secret scientific laboratory. She wants to smash through some walls to get to some important object they’re holding within, a cosmic Keynome, so she rolls to unleash her powers. She gets a miss.

  • I could say this is all actually in her head, and she’s secretly in one of Source Code’s simulations. But that’s a bad surprise. It would be unexpected, sure, but it isn’t faithful to the fiction.
  • I could say that she can’t get through the wall, or that she triggers security. But that’s a non-surprise. It’s not necessarily a bad move, but it’s certainly expected and predictable.
  • I could say that she gets a closer look at the equipment inside the lab and realizes that this is the exact same place where she was experimented upon, as those memories surge up from the fog of her backstory, and fear grips her heart. That’s a good surprise. It fits the fiction, it’s believable, and it’s not immediately expected.

Target

The target of a move is who or what the move affects—who or what the move is aimed at. It’s easy to aim a move at the PCs directly. But making the target someone other than the PC could make the move far more dramatic, especially if the PC actually cares about that character, or place, or thing. PCs (and players, for that matter) are often pretty okay with taking the hits themselves; but when nasty things happen to the people they care about, then they can’t just roll with the punches.

For example, Huma (the noble Legacy) is facing off against Doctor Infinity, a time-traveling android, who attacked him at his home to make sure the Huma legacy ends in this moment. He’s defending his family, putting himself bodily between her and them, so he rolls to defend and misses.

  • I could say she teleports him into a different time period (a decent surprise), or just beats him into the ground, trying to end the Huma legacy with him. That would target Huma directly, and it’s pretty much what Huma wants—even though he’d be getting pounded or messed up, it wouldn’t be all that dramatic.
  • I could say that Doctor Infinity teleports past Huma to his sister behind him, and abducts her into a time portal—with Huma realizing suddenly that his sister is the future of the Huma legacy, not him, and she was the target of Doctor Infinity’s attacks the whole time. That would be a much more dramatic move. It targets someone other than Huma—a loved one—and really punches Huma right in the feels.

The Outsider, MasksConsequences

The consequences of a move are what possibilities and options the move leads to. Consequences have a lot to do with the irrevocability of the move, and the other definition of hardness, but for the sake of drama it’s better to think about consequences in terms of branching paths of fiction. The more possible places that you can see the move leading to, the more dramatic it is—with the most dramatic moves giving you plenty of ideas about where things might go, but no clear idea of which specific path is the right one.

For example, Skysong (the alien Outsider) is embroiled in battle with Vanquish, an alien invader and would-be dictator of the earth. She rolls to directly engage him, and gets a miss.

  • I could say that he just knocks her out, or that he’s clearly overwhelming her in battle and inflicts a condition on her (Hopeless, for instance). But those don’t lead to as many obvious branches of fiction—he just overcomes her, and enacts his evil plan.
  • I could say that he simply avoids or breaks through every single one of her attacks, all the while talking to her and offering her a place in his armada—telling her she has never truly belonged on earth or even on her home planet, and if she actually wanted to make things better, wouldn’t the best place to do that be tempering his more violent or villainous tendencies? It’s a much more dramatic move because I can see plenty of other story branches now—she might say yes just to trick him and lead him on, or his words might stick with her and affect her down the line, or her own people might censure her for having seemed to be dealing with Vanquish, or someone might confront her teammates with evidence of the same offer, and so on.

How Dramatic Should A Move Be

So now, when you need to make a move, you have to figure out exactly how dramatically hard it should be. Just like with how irrevocably hard it should be, though, there’s no easy and fast answer.

Not every move should be a surprise—sometimes, the best dramatic move for the moment is exactly what the PC fears and expects. Not every move should have an intensely dramatic target—sometimes, the best dramatic move for the moment is a direct move against the PC, or a general threat, or one that targets a tangential connection. Not every move should have intense or awful consequences—sometimes, the best dramatic move for the moment is one that only sets the stage (a “softer move”) and has fewer branches.

Think about pacing when you’re trying to pick out how dramatic a move should be. If you make only dramatic hard moves, then everybody’s going to become exhausted with a story that’s non-stop drama with no breathers. One of the advantages of making softer dramatic moves is that they resolve quickly, and let everyone remain focused on the matters at hand. Dealing harm in Apocalypse World, or inflicting a condition in Masks—they may not be terribly dramatic on their own, but they’re quick, easy, and they leave open the possibility for more drama down the line.

If you make dramatic hard moves too infrequently, the story loses its weight and significance. The PCs and players won’t have anything to hook into or immediately care about. Dramatic hard moves demand reaction and attention, and their consequences can reverberate for sessions—without them, the story stalls.

If the fiction is stalling, things are getting slow, or the PCs don’t seem to know what they should be doing? Make a dramatic hard move.

If the fiction is singing, everyone’s interested and excited, and everyone knows what to do? Only make a dramatic hard move if the perfect, golden opportunity for one comes up.

Dramatic hard moves are the means by which the GM can best poke and prod the story into action. Use them too often, and you end up pushing the story to a place that bores your players, even if there’s a lot going on. Use them too infrequently, and your story will slow to a halt. Use them smartly, and your story will sing.

Bringing It All Together

Here’s the core takeaway of all this: the skill of being a GM comes down to knowing what move to make at what time. When you’re running a Powered by the Apocalypse game, for all the advice, agendas, and principles the game gives you, it’s down to you to make the right choice at the right time—and that’s the glory of the game system. There is no easy, instantaneous answer, no constant or rote interaction, and because of that everyone at the table is really playing to find out what happens. If players know they’re just going to take damage when they miss a move, can they be all that excited? They need the threat that every now and then, missing a move might mean their favorite sword is broken, or their friend is abducted.

Modulating the irrevocability of your moves and the drama of your moves is how you determine exactly the right move to make for the right moment. Always remember that you have control over the irrevocability and drama of your moves—they’re your tools, the dials you twist, to help your game along. You never have to make any particular move—so you should never be making your choice on autopilot. It shouldn’t always be easy to pick the right move—you should have to think, if only for a moment!

So don’t back away. You do a disservice to yourself and your game if you try to reduce the complexity of the game, to make it an input/output situation. And you’re only going to get better if you keep thinking about your moves.

In one Apocalypse World game I ran, one of the PCs was in the car of some dangerous, cult-like bandits, wrestling with them, while his brainwashed sibling was at the wheel. He tried to take the guns away from the guy he was fighting, and rolled a miss.

I don’t even fully remember what I told him, because the move wasn’t good. I was in a rush, and I made a move without really considering it at all. I think I told him to take harm, or maybe that he lost his own gun. He didn’t care. I didn’t care. The scene rolled on.

Mark later told me exactly what I should’ve done, and as soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I should’ve made the gun go off and shoot his sibling. I should’ve considered the real moves available to me (inflict harm as established), looked at the principles (look through crosshairs), looked at the agendas (play to find out what happens), and thought about the drama of the moment. Taking the PC’s gun, or inflicting harm on him, wasn’t dramatic. But taking away his loved one—in perfect accordance to the tone of Apocalypse World—would have been.

That’s exactly why you can’t pull back from thinking about moves, from considering how to modulate them. That’s exactly why there shouldn’t be an easy formula to figure out what to do. Because you don’t get amazing, surprising, and incredible moments with a formula. You only get them by staying on the ball, and actually thinking a bit about the right move to make.

The right move at the right time… that’s what your players will remember forever.