Powered (and disempowered) by the Apocalypse. / by Nathan Harrison

It’s been a hot summer. Brain-melting hot. The cooler clouds and rains of autumn are starting to return, though, which means my time & attention formerly spent in sweat-drenched discomfort can be turned back to game design instead!

Among the game concepts I toy with to varying degrees, my thoughts under the Sagas of the Dungeonlanders conceptual label have started to gel into something real. That’s resulted in a different, less-jokey working title (Hinterlands), and a draft of basic moves that I’ll be putting to use in a low-key playtest soon. Adding to those basic moves are some other fundamentals, like the 4 stats the game’s playbooks and moves will revolve around, as well as rough outlines for the archetypes each playbook will embody.

Here’s a PDF draft of what those basic moves look like now — and it is basic. There’s almost certainly too many Common moves, and the moves for High and Low standing characters are extremely preliminary. Refining all that is part of what I’ll be looking for in playtesting.

If you’ve played many Apocalypse Engine games, a lot of what’s currently there will certainly look familiar. As it stands, I’m treating this as a “remix” of Sagas of the Icelanders rather than a hack, since it’s very similar indeed. Though I expect that growth & revision of the text will drift the moves, etc. into something more unique with time.

There’s also decent chunks of Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World: Dark Age in the brew, and my attention has had me digging through every part of the “Powered by the Apocalypse” family for instruction & inspiration. From that, I’ve developed a new respect for all the Apocalypse World hacks I’d class as the good ones, and how they do what they do.

As much as PbtA games are about loosening up how play feels, the good examples are all still very shaped & intentional experiences. Moves are far from a total limiter on player action, but they absolutely serve to guide what play looks like. One of the things that most surprised me before making total sense was the absence of “Read a person/Read a sitch” type moves in Monsterhearts, for example. More than anything, I was looking to compare the kinds of questions each PbtA hack cares about, and that game is perhaps the best PbtA hack for its design efficiency & delivering on theme. Yet it doesn’t have a basic move that covers either of those uses!

My realization was that it’s not that Monsterhearts the game isn’t interested in those kinds of questions — it’s that the archetypes in that game aren’t the sort to consider much before acting. In Apocalypse World, it’s desperate times that call for caution before committing to going aggro or seizing by force. In Monsterhearts, it’s a teenage wasteland where the PCs struggle to understand others and themselves, and create no end of conflict by judging one another and acting rashly. Monsterhearts characters don’t want to find out the truth about others: they want to shut people down and assign labels to them, or use raw sexuality to get the upper hand. Moves like “Read a person” or “Read a sitch” would run totally counter to that, and give players tools that don’t serve the game’s themes or desired outcomes.

Design like that isn’t always obvious in play, if the choices made in building the game create the desired effect with grace. I’ve played Monsterhearts a handful of times without ever actively noticing that the closest thing to “Read a sitch” was “Gaze into the abyss”, which is appropriate too. One the one hand it’s pretty similar to “Open your brain to the psychic maelstrom” from Apocalypse World, but it’s also a great metaphor for the kind of teenage brooding that does constitute asking questions. But as they’re internal questions, the framework of vague insight, visions etc. jives better with what the game intends to deliver. And both of those design choices produce a compelling Fruitful Void centered on how identity for the self, others, & the world operates in the teenage years.

All of that has contributed a lot to my thinking in how an Apocalypse World hack should best be approached. The play options that have been eliminated before anyone sits down at the table deserve as much thought as what does get translated into a move. (Of course Monsterhearts is a great example for that reason in general — the ruthless paring down of basic moves while still delivering a game that does all it wants to, for one!) Which sounds screamingly obvious, of course, but seeing it in application and working backwards from the design to guess at intent has only served to drive home just how true it is.