Picking the Right GM Move in PbtA: Part One

Picking the Right GM Move in PbtAIn the Powered by the Apocalypse community, we’ve gotten used to a few pieces of terminology we use regularly—in particular, we talk a lot about soft and hard moves. Steve Segedy of Bully Pulpit Games wrote a post all about soft and hard moves, aptly titled “Soft and Hard Moves in The Warren (and other PbtA games)”. It gave me a lot to think about, and it lead to some interesting discussion on Google+—namely, about the value of categorizing and differentiating moves into soft and hard buckets. In all these games, we want GMs to make the right move at the right time, and hardness/softness is a way of modulating the move to ensure it’s the best for that situation—not a clear binary set of categories into which we can separate any given thing the GM says. GMing in PbtA games is about judgment in the moment and suiting the right move to the situation—and the softness or hardness of moves is just a tool in the box, useful for setting up exactly the right move, instead of telling us what that right move is.

What does “soft” and “hard” mean?

In games based on the Powered by the Apocalypse system, the GM makes “moves.” Most of the time, when the GM says something happens, it’s the GM making a move. When the GM The Protege, Maskssays, “He shoots you, take some damage,” that’s a move. When the GM says, “He offers you some money to take the job,” that’s a move. And in PbtA games, the GM always follows up a move with the phrase, “What do you do?” A GM move always gives the PCs something new to react to. The language around these GM moves is already a bit muddy—GM moves are a different thing than PC moves. GMs in these games get lists of possible moves to make, things like “Bring them together” or “Capture someone”. So “Capture someone” is a GM move, and when the GM says, “Hornet, Photovore chucked you into the alley. You don’t see any escape routes, and he’s advancing slowly toward you, scraping the sides of the alley with his massive frame. What do you do?”, the GM is making that move. When a GM makes a move—any move—then it falls somewhere on a “hardness” spectrum. Most of the time we define harder moves as more irrevocable, meaning they involve the GM just saying what happens, with the PCs getting less of a chance to react to each individual piece. Softer moves are less so, meaning the GM asserts fewer events, and the PCs get more of a chance to react. It’s the difference between the softer move, “Photovore is about to grab you with his claws—what do you do?” And the harder move, “Photovore grabs you and throws you into the air, well up above the rooftops, and he’s waiting for you to hit the ground. What do you do?” With the former, he’s about to grab you, and you can react. With the latter, he just grabs you, throws you, and you have to react to plummeting down through the air. A few things to call out here:
  • Neither move is hard or soft, as if it’s a binary. “Photovore is about to grab you” is softer, but there are still softer moves the GM could have made. And “Photovore chucks you into the air” is harder, but there are still harder moves the GM could have made.
  • Every move is irrevocable—the question is just how much so. When Photovore is reaching for a PC, that still happens. When Photovore grabs a PC, that still happens. The PC might be able to break Photovore’s grip, sure, but Photovore still grabbed the PC. Every move makes something happen. The effects may be revocable—you might be able to escape from Photovore's grip, or repair the building, or bring your friend back to life—but the action itself happens irrevocably.
  • The moves being made (in this case, variations on “capture someone”) don’t become harder or softer until the GM actually makes them. “Capture someone” isn’t hard, and it isn’t soft. Until the GM says what happens, each move has the potential to be softer or harder.

Why do we talk about hard and soft moves?

Talking about hard and soft moves is most useful because it tells GMs what kinds of thing they can say—but that dichotomy doesn't tell the GM what they should say. GMs get to make moves all throughout the game; sometimes they may make "as hard a move as they like." The most common is right after a PC rolls a miss, but it can also happen at other times, like when there’s a lull in the game or when someone hands the GM a golden opportunity. Note that a GM gets to make as hard a move as they like. Not a hard move, not a soft move, but whatever they want. GMs in PbtA games have principles and agendas to follow—their own rules about what they should be saying and doing in the game—and those principles and agendas guide the moves that GMs make. Imagine that in a game of Masks, Hornet rolled a miss to unleash her powers—she was trying to throw a smoke bomb and grapnel-gun out of the alley away from Photovore, in classic Batman-esque fashion. Now, I, the GM, get to make as hard a move as I like.
  • I could “Put innocents in danger,” and say that Photovore scrabbles after her, smashing into the side of the building and tearing it apart—Hornet reaches the roof, but she can hear the people screaming in the building below her.
  • I could “Tell them who they are or who they should be,” and say that Hornet still gets away, but Photovore screeches after her in a weird, grating voice, “Yes, girl, run. Like the weakling you are.”
  • I could “Make a villain move,” using one of Photovore’s own moves, “Smash an obstacle obscuring the light,” and say that just as Hornet’s about to throw the smoke bomb, Photovore grabs her hand and crushes it, along with the smoke bomb.
So even though some of these moves actually give Hornet exactly what she wanted—she gets away!—and others end with her hand broken and Photovore about to smash her, I could make any of them. The point of talking about harder and softer moves is to make sure I understand that I can modulate that hardness, that I have options, that I need to actually consider how hard or soft to make the move, instead of just defaulting to a simple input/output equation.

What should determine a GM’s move?

So which move do I make? I follow my principles and agendas, thinking about what is most important right here, right now, to make that decision. Everything is so dependent on the exact fiction involved, and the principles of the game, and the agendas of the game, and so on and so forth, that figuring out what the right move is at any given moment goes well beyond the irrevocability of the move. The Janus, MasksLet’s say that I’m GMing and the Janus, a character named Grasshopper, has been making things difficult for criminal mastermind villain the Spider. Grasshopper is confronting the Spider in his office, and she’s trying to get a read on him. She gets a miss, though, so I’m allowed to make as hard a move as I choose. I could say, “The Spider smirks at you. Some of his goons enter, holding your brother—and they have a gun to his head.” I’m making the move “Capture someone” again, but this version is on the harder end of the spectrum—it implies that Grasshopper’s brother was captured off-screen, without the PCs having a chance to stop it. But this move also fits in with Masks’s principles, agendas, and the particular issues and GM moves associated with the Janus playbook. All that makes it a good move, well outside of whether or not it’s irrevocable. If I said, instead, “The Spider smirks at you. Some of his goons enter, holding your brother—and they have a gun to his head. The Spider nods, and one of the goons fires their gun at point blank. Your brother slumps to the ground,” then I’m not making a good move. This move is harder, more obviously irrevocable...but it violates one of the principles of the game, to make human life meaningful. The same move in Apocalypse World proper, though, works! If we were playing AW, and I said, “Spider smirks at you. Jackabacka enters the room, holding your brother—and she has a gun to his head. Spider nods, and Jackabacka fires her gun at point blank. Your brother slumps to the ground,” then that could fit the agendas, principles, and moves of AW just fine. It’s following AW’s principle of “Look through crosshairs,” and it could easily be a threat move for the Warlord Spider, “Attack someone suddenly, directly, and very hard.” And remember that GMs can make hard moves at other times besides misses, when it fits the fiction, the principles, and the agendas. At the start of a new session, for example, let’s say that the young heroes have just finished fighting off an interdimensional alien threat, and things have quieted down...but Grasshopper has still spent some time in the past angering the Spider, and he’s vowed retribution. I might then tell Grasshopper that when she comes home from work at the coffee shop, she finds her house all torn up, and her brother missing—with the classic calling card of the Spider left behind. That could still be the perfect move to make, fitting the principles, agendas, and particular issues of the Janus playbook. Yes, it’s a hard move—Grasshopper doesn’t get the chance to stop Spider from abducting her brother—and it’s the start of a session, so Grasshopper definitely hasn’t rolled a miss. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right move. Knowing when to make moves harder comes down to judging those principles, agendas, and so on. One of the most important is “Be a fan of the PCs.” To quote AW (pg. 114):

“Make as hard and direct a move as you like” means just that. As hard and direct as you like. It doesn’t mean “make the worst move you can think of.” Apocalypse world is already out to get the players’ characters. So are the game’s rules. If you, the MC, are out to get them too, they’re plain fucked.

In short, we’ve got to avoid the idea that PbtA games are composed of inputs and outputs, misses and hard moves that follow. 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. Be sure to check in for the next piece in this series—getting to the specifics of how to choose dramatic, impactful hard moves!