PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1 — Momentum and the Rollercoaster

Vincent Baker recently posted an overview of Apocalypse World’s design, consolidating points that have previously been scattered. His main claim seems to be that “PbtA” is a distinctive approach to system design, one that’s particularly well-suited to game prototyping, and that it is so because of particular properties of it that he describes in sections 3–5 of his overview.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the property described in section 3, where he claims that in AW all the “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. This is tricky, because it’s not obvious what it means for something in the real world to “give momentum” to something in a fictional one.

I think he means that real-world things “given momentum” to fictional events when real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting. E.g. rules can take fictional events and generate consequences that are interesting and exciting, that provide pressing dangers, difficult choices, and worrying lose ends.

The opposite here would be real-world actions that take a potentially exciting fictional event and resolves it neatly with no threads left hanging (no serious harm, no-one upset, nothing radically changed).

Insofar as AW’s real-world actions give momentum to the fiction, I guess this it does so by specific design of moves – defining move triggers that are potentially interesting events, and defining move consequences that are interesting and exciting.

As an enabler to that, you need to keep the group’s attention on the fiction, and you need to keep events moving quickly.

The opposite of that would be real-world actions derailling fictional excitement and momentum, e.g. checking multiple places in rulebooks, complex out-of-character planning, or a rules argument.

I think AW achieves attention and speed by:

  • expressing the vast majority of its rules as concise, self-contained moves
  • keeping a fairly strict policy of fiction->(one move)->fiction (rather than fiction->(multiple moves or others mechanical processes)->fiction)

My questions at this point are:

  1. Does Apocalypse World actually achieve this? Do many PbtA games achieve this?
  2. If so, is it for the reasons I list above?

From my reading and play (the latter mostly of Dungeon World, never AW proper), I’m thinking “yes to both”, but I’m interested in any and all other views.

Update 2 March 2020 — I’ve refined my understanding of this, and written a follow-on post.

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