The missed opportunity of Class Moves

This post is about my secret sauce for the design of Moves, and especially Class Moves, in Fantasy World.

A word to the wise

Each PbtA game is a world apart. Just because one design picks up on some aspect of the PbtA framework it does not mean that it will work in any way like another game that is also somehow labelled as part of the PbtA family. But...

A universally recognised tenant of PbtA games is that the fiction should come first. And specifically, Moves should start in the fiction, do their thing, and then end in the fiction. So say we all. But when the chips are down,a lot of designs don't keep to this principle. This becomes quite apparent especially when it comes to Class/Playbook moves.

Don't get me wrong. A move that results in a "+1 Armour" or that triggers on a mechanical cue like "when you suffer damage" or "when you Spout Lore" will not be the ruin of the game. It works, and it might be enough to establish a link between how a Class is supposed to work/feel, and how the mechanics represent it in the game. Which is always good. But... I can't help but seeing it as a missed opportunity.

This is the main issue I am trying to address with the current revision of the Class Moves in Fantasy World. Previously I was developing the main body of the game system and I needed workable Classes to run some initial tests. Back then I simply copy-pasted what was already available in good old Dungeon World, and adapted it to work in the Fantasy World framework. But now I'm getting around to give a long hard look at how I would like the Classes to work in Fantasy World.

What am I doing? And why? And how?

I think that the famous D&D-inspired Classes are fine; everyone loves a bit of nostalgia and they have become iconic in pop-culture anyway. I can be original with future expansion or specific hacks. But for the base game? They are fine.

The hard question is, what do I want these Classes to be in Fantasy World? How should they work? In my view, all Moves are narrative devices... tools that help and guide Players to say stuff that they would not normally be able to say, or not as easily, or not as unpredictably. So when I think about a specific Class I wonder: what will the Players SAY and DESCRIBE and ASK THEMSELVES by using this one Class instead of another? It's a perspective shift away from "what should the Protagonist be good at" to instead look at "what should the Player say". My personal experience is that if one does the latter right, the former will fall into place on its own.

This is the theory. To achieve this goal in practice I personally strive for each and every Class Move to support its core concept by:

  • either triggering when the Player produces a certain fiction
  • or having an effect that asks the Player to produce fiction
  • or ideally both of the above

There are a couple of other things I keep in mind when designing a Move to prevent such good intentions to backfire. As always, the devil is in the implementation. So for example I work hard so that the Move text is as clear and non-ambiguous as possible. In this, I personally favor Moves that are a bit more verbose but clearer and easier to use, than Moves that are maybe shorter and cooler but also harder to use and more open to misunderstanding. In my humble opinion, the only game that takes the exact opposite approach but manages to do it in a fruitful and effective way is Monsterhearts 2, with its minimal and punchy Moves that would normally be horribly vague and hard to use but, because of the specific mechanical and narrative framework of that game, instead end up working just fine. MH2 is a jewel. Just go play it... like... now!

Another cornerstone I keep in mind when writing Moves is that game procedures should, as much as possible, be firm (you have to say something) but gentle (whatever you say is fine). Requirements and details on what/how to describe stuff should be present but not be too stringent or subject to specific judgement.

Being too stringent risks shifting the effect from guidance and support, to a forced and unpleasant chore. Minimal descriptions should be allowed by default, as not everyone enjoys talking and talking and talking just to swing a sword or tie their shoes. The point of a good Move is to help Players to avoid purely mechanical statements with no connection to the fiction, and to promote (not force) a more rich description.

Phrasing Moves in a way that calls for some kind of external judgement on the quality of that a Player describes should also be avoided. Quirky and off-putting descriptions should be always acceptable, as the point is not to be skilled narrators or to meet the aesthetic taste of the World or of other Players, but to help each Player to find their own voice and to express their own ideas. In both cases I don't worry about abuses or extreme instances; in Fantasy World these are dealt with other general procedures (such as the One Golden Rule) that are part of the core mechanics, rather than being re-stated as exceptions in each Move.

Put up or shut up

At the time of writing this post, four Classes have underwent such treatment: BardClericDruidFighter. As it's quite a new and radical re-write, they still need proper testing and will receive touch ups according to the results and feedback I get in the future... but more or less they should be in their final form.

If there is interest, I'll go into detail about the design choices at the root of each Class. Let me know in the comments what piques your interest first, or if you would like to know more about something completely different.

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