Apocalypse/Cortex–A Conversation

TL;DR: This post explores how Apocalypse World and Cortex disrupt the old “let’s just role-play this!” attitude slightly differently, and how to use these differences to enrich roleplay.

I’m old enough to remember days when “let’s just role-play this!” meant: let’s have a conversation and forget about the dice. Until recently, I mostly played Fate, which lends itself well to less dice-rolling, and to me, it was kind of a throwback experience—my own private “Old School Revival,” if you will.

Still, some folks I play with are not that comfortable with Fate’s approach. They’re among my favorite people in the whole world, so I looked into alternatives, and two stood out: Apocalypse World and Cortex Prime. I don’t enjoy GM-ing the former that much, so I settled on Cortex Prime.

However, one feature I would have picked Apocalypse World for (moves) has no direct equivalent in Cortex. So I looked into their function and whether Cortex needed any addition to fulfilling it. This post is an answer to that question. And then some.

“If you do it, you do it”

First, a caveat: what follows is an exceedingly impoverished distillation of PtbA design principles as exposed by D. Vincent Baker in a Patreon-backed 8-part series (beginning here). Then again, I’m offering a couple of free-of-charge paragraphs, so manage your expectations accordingly.

Second, everybody should read this series, so I’m just aiming for a teaser. I hope I didn’t misrepresent anything, but that’s a risk. After all, I’m a philosopher.

Table and Conversation

At the heart of AW/PtbA design is a dichotomy between what happens in the conversation between players (GM included) and what happens at the table (mostly, dice rolls, but also, rule-checks, etc.). Simplifying greatly (remember the caveat):

  • The Conversation is carried by the players and GM and is about the N/PCs’ life, feelings, actions, beliefs, etc.
  • The Table is literally where the dice are thrown, and figuratively, real-world stuff bearing upon the Conversation.

The gist is that the dichotomy is not a partition. One is not either in the Conversation or at the Table. Some rules prescribe what happens in the Conversation, so, it’s also a Table event. Similarly, Table rule-checks could include a read-aloud of rule points about N/PCs, and that would be Conversation.

“Play collapses toward, not away from, the conversation.”

D. Vincent Baker, “Powered by the Apocalypse, part 1

Now, to quote D. Vincent Baker, “play collapses toward, not away from, the conversation.” A non-CC-licensed diagram accompanies that quote, but I won’t fair-use it because it’s full of AW/PtbA-specific details I don’t care to get into. Fig. 1 is my simplified version of Baker’s diagram (for later: arrows are my addition).

Fig. 1: Conversation Collapse in narrative-friendly RPGs

As Fig. 1 caption suggests, Conversation collapse is a natural slant of narrative-friendly RPGs. It’s not specific to PtbA, and it’s not saying much either, because even AD&D would qualify as “narrative-friendly”—I learned “let’s just role-play this” from 2E. Nonspecificity and not-saying-much are my fault: the arrows don’t do justice to what drives the collapse in PtbA. Let’s get to that.


I’ve touched moves before (from Fate’s standpoint) but superficially. There are tensions between Fate and AW, design- and gameplay-wise, which I didn’t care to address. I set Fate aside in this post, so hopefully, closer scrutiny won’t cause confusion. Let’s start with a quote.

“The rule for moves is to do it, do it. In order for it to be a move and for the player to roll dice, the character has to do something that counts as that move; and whenever the character does something that counts as a move, it’s the move and the player rolls dice.”

D. Vincent and Meguey Baker, Apocalypse World 2E, p. 10

Paraphrasing: moves start with a Conversation event (the narrative trigger) and proceed with a Table event (the dice roll). What ensues following a dice roll is an involved topic. Fortunately, we can follow Baker’s suggestion, peruse the Twitter thread linked below (“I have it bookmarked”, here, trick #8), and get what philosophers would call “a definition in extension.”

If you read the thread, you now have a prototype of a move. And if you have a veneer of programming, it amounts to something like that: a move is a function taking inputs in The Conversation and at The Table and returning output in the Conversation. If you’re more into abstract algebra, substitute “input” and “output” with “arguments” and “value.”

And if all this is too abstract, check the visual: Fig. 2, a better rendition of Conversation collapse in AW/PtbA, with the u-turn arrow representing moves.

Fig. 2: Conversation Collapse, PtbA-style

Converting Moves

The deep reasons I’d like to add PtbA-style moves in Cortex are somewhat complex, but I have a few simpler, superficial ones, and for this post, I’ll stick to those. Let’s start with the Bakers’ “rule for moves,” which summarizes the lengthier quote from earlier.

The rule for moves is if you do it, you do it, so make with the dice.

D. Vincent and Meguey Baker, Apocalypse World 2E, p. 10

My most straightforward reason is that Cortex players already “make with the dice” in ways reminiscent of AW/PtbA. So why not try to go all the way? Let’s substantiate the “the players already…” thingie, then consider if there’s a need to “go all the way.”

Roll & Keep Interaction

Cortex’s standard resolution system is the “Roll & Keep” method: build a dice pool, roll n dice, keep m for total and m’ for effect—usually with n=3, m=2, and m’=1. Each die represents a character trait, many of which have flavor text—sometimes, a lot. Here are two quite common scenarios in Cortex games, at the Table:

  • Scenario 1: A player responds to the Conversation with rolling-and-keeping (before the GM rolls-and-keeps).
  • Scenario 2: A player glosses over the traits associated with some of or all the dice they pick for their dice pool.

Scenario 1 illustrates how Cortex players often “make with the dice” in response to Conversation events, even in the absence of preexisting GM-initiated Table events. And Scenario 2, how Cortex dice serve as Conversation anchors—equivalently, how picking a hand of dice is not leaving the Conversation.

A Rule for Moves

Interpolating a few phrases in the one-line “rule for moves,” we can fold PtbA-style Conversation collapse into a (mostly) System-Agnostic Rule for Moves. I’ll use the acronym SARM because I love a terrible pun. Then again, the connotation fits—it’s a recipe for moves on steroids (hint-pun for logicians-bodybuilders: by conversion).

(SARM) If you do it [in the Conversation], you do it [at the Table], so make with the dice [at the Table, then return to the Conversation].

Three remarks, in order of importance.

  1. Other resolution systems would do, but dice are how AW and Cortex work, so I did not generalize beyond dice, to stay as close as possible to the original quote.
  2. The GM does not roll dice in PtbA games, but that’s an “accident” of the system (see here, #6). So, there’s no principled reason for “you” not to be “the GM.”
  3. “You do it” must be limited by conditions (left implicit for system-agnosticism). Otherwise, every action in the Conversation would call for a dice roll (assuming the truth-table for if P, then Q and material implication). That would be a bit much.

Scenarios 1-2 fit (SARM), the first ex hypothesis, the second because the player is returning to the Conversation by anchoring Table events (dice picks) in it. More interestingly, in Scenario 2, the converse of (SARM) holds. And it generalizes in Cortex: if you do it at the Table, you do it in the Conversation—provided that you gloss over the dice pool picks. So, Cortex may not need moves after all.

Wrapping Up: Does Cortex Need Moves?

Thanks to dice-pool gloss-over, Cortex Table interactions are always potentially also Conversation interactions. Thus, Cortex one-ups Apocalypse World—interestingly, by taking inspiration from D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyards and In A Wicked Age (which, also, had dice pools).

Still, collapse toward the Conversation is a means to an end: having specific interactions between N/PCs emerge from the players’ interactions with the game systems. D. Vincent Baker’s series covers emergent gameplay, particularly in AW (here) and Under Hollow Hills (here). The move list is a huge part of the process.

There’s an argument—this post being one step thereof—that similar emergent gameplay could arise from Cortex subsystems without moves. Then again, AW and Cortex share DNA, so, maybe no surprise. Still, by that argument, a move list interacting with other Cortex systems would boost emergent processes.

Thus, a Cortex “move mod“ would be an interesting pursuit. At least to me. Anyway, I’m on it.

And that will be all for today, folks.

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