I've wanted to write about my thoughts around cascading failures in Apocalypse Engine / Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games for a while now, and I've finally had time to sit down and do it. So, welcome. Please sit back and enjoy some of my thoughts around how you, the GM, can make consequences of failure exciting and spiral your players further closer to their doom - all while making it feel narratively fulfilling.
I'll try to keep this post relatively short, give you some reading from where I've learned my tricks, as well as some example scenarios of cascading failure pulled from actual games that I've run.
A lot of what I do in my narrative story games boils down to some key principles I've learned by reading other explainers from various authors and combined with a few improv tricks to get the players invested in their characters. The first place I point to is always the Dungeon World Community Guide by Eon Fontes-May and Sean Dunstan. Key sections are "How the Conversation Works" and "Hard moves vs. soft moves" - which we'll be talking about just a little further down.
Likewise, many PbtA derivatives have excellent sections on running the game. My personal favorites in no particular order: Thirsty Sword Lesbians (The Long-Form Example of Play), Monster of the Week (On With the Mystery!), and Urban Shadows (Soft Moves vs. Hard Moves). Likewise, a lot of the narrative feel of PbtA carried over into Blades in the Dark, so it's also an excellent resource. The order in which concepts are introduced in BitD are confusing - but still excellent.
Principles of Making GM Moves
Before we get into mechanical examples, I want to get into something I think should be called out. This general idea is repeated in many PbtA games, but it's really worth hitting each point home with some commentary.
So as you read the following, here are some things I always try to keep in mind when determining how to make a GM move.
- Be a Fan of the Characters
- It's critically important that the GM not be an "antagonist". Your job is to help the characters get themselves into interesting situations, and slowly ratchet up the tension so that everyone is having fun. You can make as hard a move as you want, but the game's social contract expects you to keep the hard moves for thematically appropriate times.
- Death should only result from well-telegraphed consequences
- Nothing is less satisfying in a narrative storytelling game than a character's senseless demise at the hands of the dice.
- Nothing is more satisfying than the PCs getting themselves into trouble and then gleefully dying to drive the narrative forward.
- Ask questions, use the answers
- This one is really just good narrative GMing and collaborative storytelling - it gives you so much more to work with when making moves.
Soft Moves vs. Hard Moves
Learning the difference between when to use soft and hard moves is probably one of the best dials of "narrative action" I've found in PbtA games, and understanding the distinction well is a key element of building cascading failure.
Urban Shadows (1st Edition), I think, lays this out in the best way to explain - but I'm going to put a little spin on this. If you want to read their version, it's on page 190.
To put it simply, when the GM makes a move, the range of "soft" to "hard" is a spectrum best illustrated using simple examples. They use the PC's mentor facing a danger as the example, but I'll present a couple of different scenarios. The key to remember is that whatever the move is, soft moves should offer the opportunity for the players to react to them to mitigate them and they should provide the opportunity to roll into harder moves. Hard moves have immediate consequences (and typically mechanical implications, like causing Harm).
Example 1: Bunker Watch
For the first scenario, we'll start on a sunny day and the PCs are currently surveying a bunker that's been carved into the cliff side. There are clearly patrols with binoculars looking at them, and they've not been careful about not being spotted.
Real Soft Move: Okay, yeah, you see a bunch of folks with binoculars surveying the area heavily. One of them looks like he's about to turn his gaze to where you all are not-particularly hidden, but you've got a few seconds before he spots you. What do you do?
Not-as-soft-but-still-soft Move: Okay, there are a bunch of folks with binoculars surveying the surrounding area, and that's right about when you realize that one of them is staring straight at you. You see him say a few words into his wrist, quickly followed by the distant sound of klaxons. Looks like they're on high alert now. What do you do?
Hard Move: Okay, there are a bunch of folks with binoculars surveying the surrounding area, and that's right about when you realize that one of them has a sniper rifle and it's pointed right at you. You hear a loud "crack". It takes several more seconds for the sharp pain in your torso to register. Take 2-harm. What do you do?
For those soft moves, you can see how they can cascade further into harder moves. The first one could easily lead to the second if the PCs attempt to hide and roll poorly. The second could lead to the third in the same scenario. They could also go in differing directions should the rolls or the fiction dictate.
Example 2: Fixing the Plane While it's Falling
For the second scenario, let's take a high octane situation from action movies. The private jet you're flying in has been sabotaged, and a remote control device has disabled the engines. One of the PCs is attempting to detach the little black box from under the console safely. Bailing out here is a problem as you're above the wilderness and rescue is going to be difficult. A wrong move and you could fry the electronics. You don't have a lot of time, get to work!
Real Soft Move: You're having a hard time making heads-or-tails of this device. It doesn't look like you can just rip it out, but you could try something else. Better make it quick, though, the altimeter's rapidly dropping. What do you do?
Not as Soft Move: As you cut one of the wires leading into the device, you hear a series of loud beeps and the console sparks and then goes dark. You're not sure how much time you have left, but you know that the console's shot. What do you do?
Hard Move: As you cut one of the wires leading into the device, you hear a series of loud beeps and the sound of the engines revving up and the plane sharply dips straight towards the ground. You feel yourself get lighter as you're now essentially in freefall. You figure you've got about 15 seconds before you hit the ground. What do you do?
Very Hard Move: As you cut one of the wires leading into the device, you hear a series of loud beeps and the sound of the engines revving up and the plane sharply dips straight towards the ground. You feel yourself get lighter as you're now essentially in freefall. Just then you hear a loud crack as the fuselage breaks in half. Your ears crack as you're sucked out of the cockpit mere seconds before it impacts the ground. Take 4-harm, and you are now permanently deaf. Were you wearing a parachute?
EXTREMELY HARD MOVE: As above, but the PC is killed in the resulting crash.
In this example, it's narratively unsatisfying if you pull the hardest move right out of the gate. Instead, if you start with a soft move and use that as a ball of bad that's gathering steam as it rolls downhill. The first example has barely any consequence - they don't know what to do about the box, but they've got plenty of time to try something different. The second, they blew up the controls with their tinkering, cutting off access to one potential solution, but again, it's not totally irrevocable. They've still got the plane, and they've still got time to figure out how to keep it aloft (albeit without the controls - maybe they can hard-wire a laptop to the control computer?).
The hard moves all have some variation of "The plane is toast, can you save yourself?". The final hard move also has "and now you're toast as well".
Death, for example, is the hardest move of all. - Urban Shadows
Making Those Failures Cascade, a Real Example
So, now we've got (hopefully) a good grasp of some example Soft vs. Hard moves. Putting those into practice is key to building out a dynamic narrative in PbtA games. Let's have a look at how this can work in practice!
The following example is taken from a Dungeon World game I ran several years ago. The interactions are not direct quotes, they're paraphrased (and heavily dramatized as we add flair over years of retelling the story), but this is one of the most concise examples I've got handy - largely because the Ranger was rolling poorly that day.
GM: Okay, you've made it this far into the catacombs - you can see two doors in front of you. You hear the sounds of something heavy stomping around coming through the right door. What do you do?
Ranger: I tiptoe up to the right door and peek around to see what it is making the noise and if there's any way that I can get the jump on it.
GM: Cool, that sounds like you're Discerning Realities, go ahead and roll it.
Ranger: Ugh. 5.
GM: Well, the good news is, it's humongous and easy to spot - it looks like some kind of Devil - covered in spikes and barbs. A Barbed Devil, you might say. The bad news is, right as you stuck your head out, it was watching the door. It lets out a gurgling hiss and starts running towards you. What do you do? (Soft move, no immediate consequences, but the danger is mounting).
Ranger: I don't think I can outrun it, so I'm going to try to go into the room and dive underneath it, and slash at its legs with my sword. ...and I rolled a 6 on Hack and Slash. Come on dice!!
GM: That maneuver was super cool, but you were a split second too slow on the dive. The Devil grabs you by the shoulder, hoists you up and pins you to the wall. It opens its mouth wide and comes in to bite you. What do you do? (Getting harder, no damage or permanent changes yet - but the threat is extremely close now)
Ranger: I grab a vial of holy water from my belt, uncork it with my thumb, and pour the holy water in its mouth.
GM: Okay, sounds like a Defy Danger to me. Your hand is awfully close to its teeth.
Ranger: Nooooooo! A 4! How can the dice hate me so much?
GM: Well, I think the logical thing here is that you stick your hand in its mouth, pour the holy water in, and the pain causes the devil to bite down on your arm. Take 5 damage, and you are missing your arm from just below the elbow. You're bleeding heavily and it's going to be hard to use a bow. The devil drops you and reels back, holding its mouth. What do you do?
The narrative structure of that roll was a 3 part "things get directly worse, as related by your actions in the narrative". It culminated in the ranger losing an arm, but she knew that was a risk when putting her arm into the thing's mouth and was good with the narrative framing. We sadly never got to experience the ranger's growth from the ordeal, as that was the end of a very short narrative campaign in between regular games, but it was still fairly fun.
Well, this post is getting a bit long, but I hope my take / explanation on how to make failure cascade and be interesting at the same time was helpful! Lemme know if there's anything I can clarify or you think I should do differently.