Why Moves...

Posted on Fri Jun 19 2015 -- pbta

Writing the long-delayed, much-changed Vessels game has led me back, again and again, to the model used by Apocalypse World and Dungeon World: "moves".

In short, a move is a piece of mechanics that embeds itself into the ongoing stream of fiction. "When X happens during the storytelling part, rule Y asserts itself." Usually this is a simple roll-to-succeed situation, where success means you get to proceed as though X worked out, failure means X doesn't, and somewhere in the middle is X working out but with contingent condition Z tacked on. "When I throw a grenade, I either blow up the other guy, blow myself up, or blow up the other guy but get shot by his buddies" is an example of this success-fail-complicate triad.

I like success-fail-complicate. I'm not a big fan of success-fail, and also not a fan of success-complicate. Some tasks should be too big and too hard to realistically tackle. There's an endless number of ways to implement SFC using dice, cards, or computers, but they are all roughly equivalent in creative cost. You can spend the same several hours muddling out one dice system as you can a different one.

Why moves suck

like moves, but I have a hard time writing a game that demands that I author a lot of moves. It's simply a log, painful slog through creative writing, and at the end I don't have any confidence that everything is tested and balanced and fun. For that, I'd need to go play-test it all, and that's time I could be spending writing more moves, or the next game, or whatever.

I bit off a big chunk when writing the PC traits rules for Vessels. Characters don't have a "class", they have traits: identity, ideals, experiences, and sacrifices. Each of these traits comes with one or more moves, called "Gambits", unlocked when the PC brings that trait into play. For example, an honorable knight has an honor-related move that he can start using once honor is put on the table. There is no "level" or "XP" — you have access to everything you can do, depending how much you open your heart to the crisis at hand.

Why moves are awesome

In theory this is good for creating wildly variable characters. I believe in practice it'll be a huge amount of work, because every type of trait needs 6-12 values, or more, and that's 35-40 moves to write in total. But if I do that work, you can play whatever you like, and I'll at least be somewhat prepared for you, because at bottom there's a short and finite number of things you do in this game (manage emotion, bonds, fates, and heart) and Gambits are mainly there to give you new and exciting angles for how to tackle those tasks.

You can have the Honorable Knight from the Last War who Lost His True Love, or the Honorable Merchant from the City who Lost His Love, and those characters will have as many similarities as differences. But those two guys alone have 6 unique Gambits between them, and there's only so much in the game that needs a rule for it.

Why moves aren't Gambits

How does this stack against a typical DW playbook? The Gambits of the Vessels rules are complex compared to one-liner DW moves, but a typical DW playbook might have 25 total moves on it, maybe 10-15 of which are in play with a high-level character.

This might be an argument in favor of simplifying Gambits, doing away with the baroque dice system, and just using 2d6 like DW does. But my system does something that 2d6 doesn't, and maybe I need to be convinced that that thing isn't valuable before I can accept giving it up. Gambits are — or can be — complex because the baroque system gives me options that 2d6 doesn't have, and I exploit that complexity.

What next

I tried to solve the problem of writing a lot of Gambits by packaging them into stories, like the fairy tales and fables of the fictional world — there's heroic characters and dastardly villains, and there's a moral, and reading those stories should suggest ideals, identity, experience, and sacrifice. Each of the stories should suggest Gambits, which is how in general the protagonists managed to make it through.

This has the dual advantage of validating my proposed game rules against an acceptable metric: heroic fiction. Rather than writing rules in a vacuum, I'm extracting them directly from a story that I already know has some interesting qualities. This is extra creative work, but it neatly compartmentalizes a very large task.