Cortex-U–Threat 201: Disclaiming Decision Making

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TL;DR: Cortex Prime can build Threat Maps on Pathways, and a GM can turn them into improvisational tools allowing for storylines without railroading.

One of Apocalypse World‘s Mistress of Ceremony’s options is to disclaim decision-making by putting decisions into the NPCs’ hands. There’s a shallow, low-effort interpretation: NPCs are controlled by the MC, so it’s just the MC disclaiming responsibility for being a dick, aka bullshiting (technically so). And there’s a deeper, higher-effort interpretation based on the Threat Map.

AW builds Threat Maps upon PCs’ playbook foundations (essential Threats), and Cortex Prime can build them upon Pathways. This Cortex U class expands Threat 101: A Practical Introduction and covers how to turn Threat Maps into plot generators for full-on improvisation or (surreptitious) GM plotting that does not mess with player (and PC) agency.

I start with the basics of Threat decision-making and interaction, then proceed with Threat-driven plots and how to keep them responsive to PCs’ actions. As usual, the theory stays in the background. There’s an end-Q&A that you can check first if any of the above bugs you.

Lecture Notes #1: Threats & Their Niche

There’s a long and roundabout way to present Threats and Threat Maps as agent-based models. And then, there’s the short, to-the-point way from folks who already have played more PbtA than I’ll probably ever will (Fig 1).

I'll echo what [anonymized] said about Threats bein a way for PbtA GMs to prep. I find it useful as a way to frame and get perspective on what would happen if no intervention from the protagonists. Setup thing from their perspective and what they want and what will happen.
Fig. 1. Threat Maps by a PbtA Player/GM.

Below is a transcript if your screen reader did not pick my alternate text (mine did not) with inserts restituting some context.

“I’ll echo what [Anonymous PbtA GM] said about Threats being [nothing fancier than] a way for PbtA GMs to prep. I find it useful as a way to frame and get perspective on what would happen if no intervention from the [PC] protagonists [occurred]. Setup thing from [the Threats’] perspective and what they want and what will happen [if they make their moves to get what they want].”

Another anonymous PbtA GM

Threat 101 covered Threats’ impulses and moves but left other determinants out, including our focus for today: a Threat’s map location and relations to other Threats, which determine its niche in the game ecosystem, hereafter “ecological niche” (Fig. 2). And “what would happen if no intervention of the protagonists [occurred]” becomes a plot generator when Threats compete for the same niche.

Fig. 2. Apocalypse World’s Threat’s Ecological Niche

Below’s a generic list designed for ecological niche competition for a “Big Town Drama,” with pages references to Cortex Prime Game Handbook (CPGH), print or .pdf; and links, to the ruleset (require a registered Cortex account). They’ll come in handy in a minute.

  • Institution. Impulse: Protect Its Ways. (Faction or Org; CPGH:119)
    Moves: weigh-in (publicly, privately, or secretly), place pawns, close ranks.
  • Shot-Caller. Impulse: Stay On Top. (Major GMC or Boss; CPGH:114, 118)
    Moves: show force, broker alliances, grab power.
  • Zealot. Impulse: Spread the Word. (Major GMC or Boss)
    Moves: seek support (followers, allies, dupes), stigmatize, goad into action.
  • Hirelings. Impulse: Side with the Strong. (Faction or Mob; CPGH:117)
    Moves: offer service, muscle in, switch side.
  • Family. Impulse: Hold Together. (Faction or Mob)
    Moves: offer support, bring strays back into the fold, gang up against outsiders.

There are many ways to cash in plain-word traits, and the next section will showcase the Zealot and the Hirelings. But I’ll conclude with an outline of Threats competing for the same niche written with plain-word moves and no mechanics (see also #3, Exercise 1, part I).

“While spreading the word, the Zealot recruits a member of the Family. They decide to bring the stray back into the fold and soon gang up against the Zealot, who seeks support from followers and goad them into action.”

Lecture Notes #2: Competitive Snowballing Scripts

Whether they are placed on the map ahead of playing (GM-seeded) or on the fly (organically), niche-competing Threats generate “competitive snowballing” through circumstances preventing multiple Threats from getting what they want simultaneously (as in Lesson #1). Below is a competitive snowballing (CS) write-up, assuming [circumstances] intersect two Threats’ niches.

(CS) If [circumstances] resulting from [Threat #1]’s [move #1] in response to [Threat #1]’s [impulse] trigger [Threat #2]’s [impulse], then [Threat #2] reacts with [move #2].

Iterating (CS) yields scripts for event chains with “no intervention from the [PC] protagonists” fulfilling the functions of AW’s countdown clocks (“reminder[s] [that] threats have impulse [to act] and to respond coherently to others,'” AW:117). Clocks are merely a visualization, so we’ll stick with (CS)-script. Below is one with three threats.

Step 1. A Zealot stigmatizes an Institution’s practices as being contrary to the word he spreads in a public campaign against the Institution. The Institution responds by closing rank to protect its ways.

Step 2. The Institution weighs in secretly with a smear campaign against the Zealot, who counters it by seeking support from allies.

Step 3. The Zealot goads a troop of followers into action, organizing a demonstration at the Institution’s headquarters. The Institution responds by placing pawns: Hirelings siding with the strong that muscle in on the demonstration.

Step 4: The Zealot’s followers and the Hirelings clash at the Institution’s headquarters.

Threat 101 covered Threats through hypotheticals introducing mechanics for GMC-on-PC action—“If [circurmstances], then [Dice Pool]” (here, Exercise 2)—but GMC-vs-GMC are not a thing in Cortex. Mechanics are necessary for PC interference only and need to answer: how could the PCs interfere with [circumstances]? The Hirelings’ SFX (Fig. 2b) suggests a partial answer, assuming interference at Step 4, but PCs’ options are wide open.

Countdown clocks are another AW-listed way for the GM to disclaim decision-making, and extend putting things into NPCs’ hands.” Outsourcing to PCs and setting stakes are the two left, but we’re getting there. In fact, you can recover both from (CS)-scripts.

  • Putting decision-making into PCs’ hands. A (CS)-script is a hypothetical storyline, not a pre-planned storyline (cf. Q&A, Q3). Any step has at least one interference point for PCs to mess up with.
  • Setting a Stake Question (I). Each Step n of a (CS)-script answers the question, “What would result from Step n-1?” So, the last step has an implicit stake question. Therefore:
  • Setting a Stake Question (II). You can always go, “Scratch that!” at Step n, and re-open a stake question at Step n-1.

Framing Stake Questions is slightly more complicated than merely asking, What would result from Step n-1? But not by much. For instance, good PC-related Stake Questions in Step 4 would be: Will the PCs take control of the Hirelings? or Which side (if any) will the PCs take? An NPC-related question could be How would the Institution react to the Hirelings losing the Confrontation?

And with that, we’ve covered disclaiming decision-making from a Threat-centric approach.

Lecture Notes #3: Practice

Exercise 1 covers the basics of using moves from a pre-made list, and applies the skills learned in Lecture #3 of Threat 101: A Practical Introduction. You may want to review that material.

Exercise 1: Competitive Snowball

Part I: Based on the “Big Town Drama” list of #1, write two 1-paragraph outlines using plain-word moves, each with (at least) two Threats, and identify the niche for which they compete.

Part II: Based on the Zealot-Family outline of Lecture #1 and the Zealot-Institution-Hirelings (CS)-script of Lecture #2:
(a) Propose a write-up for the Family as Mob GMC.
(b) Expand the Zealot-Family snowball outline into a 2- or 3-steps (CS)-script.

(CS)-scripts are dangerously close to pre-planned storylines and may or may not pass an Apocalypse World purity test (cf. Q&A, Q3). Exercise 2 thus introduces the most important GM/MC skill of this class: letting go. Honing that skill will teach you how to use Threat as intended and help you virtue-signal AW orthodoxy on the Internet.

Exercise 2: Outsourcing to PCs and Opening Stake Questions

Part I (PC interference): For each Step of the (CS)-script of Lecture #1, determine at least one interference point for PCs to mess up with the storyline. Optional: write in the Institution (as an Org), modify the Zealot and the Hirelings, or add a Scene Distinction or a Location GMC at one or several steps, to open new strategies for the PCs.

Part II (Stake questions): For each Step n of the (CS)-script of Lecture #1, write down two Stake Questions at Step n-1: one about the PCs and one about one GMC already in the (CS)-script

Part III (Optional): (a) Merge the outline of Lecture #1 and the (CS)-script of Lecture #2, to involve the Family: at each step of the (CS)-script, use the (CS) write-up to propose a move for the Family, responding to their impulse. (b) Repeat Parts I and II with your new Zealot-Family-Institution-Storyline..

ASK FOR HELP sends you to Cortex U’s #x01-exercise-channel on The Dirty Window Discord server and grants you temporary membership. Read the pinned post on the channel for instructions on how to ask questions and don’t hesitate to ping @CU Staff.

Wrapping Up: The return of Plots?

The class material has stayed agnostic toward a possibly important distinction by assuming a saddle point where enough Threats compete for enough niches. There are two ways (not necessarily exclusive) to reach that saddle point. 

  • Top-Down, or “seeded”: the GM pre-places some Threats on a map (“classic” GM-based plotting, dungeon-crawling, etc.).
  • Bottom-Up, or “organic”: Threats on the map originate entirely from play (AW, Cortex Pathways).

The AW-orthodox approach to reaching a saddle point is organic play. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeding a Threat map, as long as the GM stays consistent with AW-like principles. And in fact, an AW Threat map is seeded by game design rather than organic play as soon as the players pick playbooks that include NPCs.

And that will be all for today’s lesson. Class dismissed, folks.

Q1: Are you insinuating the Bakers encourage MCs to bullshit?
No. The Bakers list make your move, but misdirect among the MC’s principle (AW 2E:82), but that’s not technically bullshitting. It’s part of the contract: the players know that the MC is misdirecting; it’s a “known unknown.” What I’m flat-out saying, not insinuating, is that lazy MCs with, say, some D&D background, who don’t read through the MC sections carefully and miss the important bits, could mistake this principle, and some MC moves such as separate them, take away their stuff, and turn their moves back on them (AW 2E:88; also, Q3 below), as a license to behave like the bullshitting dickheads D&D encourages GMs to be.

Q2: Apocalypse World and Cortex Prime are really different games, why compare them?
If you’re asking, you probably missed the Threat 101: A Practical Introduction class. Head to the lecture notes and check the Q&A, esp. Q1 and Q2. Also, the title of this class is Threat 201, so, take the clue. Next question?

Q3: The MC did not do anything like that in the AW games I’ve played. Why should I do it your way and not theirs?
You shouldn’t. It’s one way to play AW, and it’s co-opting Threat Maps for something that, depending on how you interpret “storyline,” may even run against the Bakers’ intentions: “It’s not [the MC’s] agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around)” (AW 2E, p. 80). My way out of this is that a Threat-driven storyline won’t (dis)qualify as “pre-plan[ned] storyline” as long as it’s open to PCs’ disruption. But that’s my interpretation, and somewhere on the Internet, someone will disagree.

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