Psychopaths & Phylacteries as a DW hack?

I’ve been toying with Psychopaths & Phylacteries off and on over the last few months. I’ve been happy with some of the character creation ideas, but not really with the overall engine.

I realized that because for the social footprint I want P&P to slot into, I like Dungeon World’s engine. So, for the moment, I’m fucking with P&P as a Dungeon World hack. And that’s lead me to seriously ponder what’s core to a *Word game, and what’s just common trappings people dig. Here’s the thing: there are people who have been hacking this system for longer than I have, so maybe I’m missing something.

Player moves: moves are key, definitely, but in a loose way. Player moves can be broken down into “[fictional trigger, player-narrated] [mechanical execution] [hard choices, sometimes] [fictional result, player-narrated or GM-narrated]” (I already wrote about this structure long ago.) This is the Otherkind dice mechanic, well refined.

GM moves: these are necessary to the structure of the current games, but I wonder how well it’ll map to a light-hearted game. And this is where I wonder if I like DW, but it’s not necessarily the right fit.

Some smart people have broken down GM moves, including John Harper and Jonathan Walton (who apparently wrote a bit I can’t quickly find about how the first step into a *W hack is to look at what the GM’s moves should model).

The GM not rolling dice: I don’t see this as inherent to the system, though it’s important that the GM never roll for moves. But then, Adam & Sage saw that too, as they shifted monster damage to die rolls.

Playbooks: Here’s where I may diverge from common thought — playbacks aren’t core to the experience. They’re a (if done well) decently presented package of character creation choices, current and future abilities, system-rewarded motivations, and shit like hit points. That they’re all separate, like the playbooks in AW or the classes in DW, is actually a setting component, not a system one.

Advancement: Advancement may not be inherently core, but it’s important to the P&P concept. And if you remove that, you end up with static characters, so perhaps the fundamental idea is core, just its execution may widely vary.

No rerolling: I’m not sure if this is core. It certainly reinforces flavors that Apocalypse World wants to push, and Dungeon World uses it to strong effect, but I wouldn’t say that this is a required element of the engine. That said, if you put any ability to reroll in, you seriously need to examine all of your math and reward choices.


I feel like maybe I’m missing something else. What do you think?

– Ryan


5 Responses to Psychopaths & Phylacteries as a DW hack?

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    Since the G+ crowd sadly just comments there, here’s a link to that (mainly for my own future reference):

  2. Johnstone says:

    I will comment on your blog, Ryan!

    The g+ comments are pretty good although it would be more accurate to say that MC principles tell you HOW you use the moves to achieve the agenda. Yes, agenda describes why there is a GM in the game, and moves are what you actually do as the GM, but the principles tell you HOW to do them.

    Like for example: “take away their resources” is a move, but how do you take it away so that you are making the world real, the game interesting, and you are playing to see what happens? Make your move but never speak its name will make it seem real and not like a “game thing,” give the NPC that took it away a life so the situation is interesting and not “go fight those 2d4 1HD orcs if you want your sword back!” and then you can disclaim decision-making and about what that NPC is going to do an you’re playing to find out what happens (or aks the players provocative questions about the NPC to find out who they are).

    Also, Vincent’s HOW section is split into “Always Say” and “The Principles.” This isn’t crucial or anything, it can be done a different way, but the simple breaking up of the why, how, and what is a good format.

    Player moves tell you when to roll the dice, in really concrete terms. Unlike many other rpgs that say “roll dice when you think you should roll dice.” You can use the 2d6+stat vs static target numbers from AW, or some other resolution system, including one that doesn’t involve dice. Jonathan Walton likes the workspace rules a lot, and Paul Riddle’s Undying doesn’t use dice either.

    Advancement, from highlighting stats to xp to advances, is a thing you can swap out for anything else, yes.

    Playbooks aren’t essential, but it’s worth noting that basic moves say how the characters are all alike and special moves say how they are different, usually a lot more so than variable stat scores do.

    GM could roll dice, sure. I roll damage dice when I run Dungeon World, the players want me to do it. The GM could roll dice for her special moves though, or use random tables, and that would be fine. The GM rolling against the players might be a bit tricky because see my next point:

    Something that DOESN’T work in AW is difficulty levels. Vincent mentions that the “-1 penalty for difficult actions” is a thing nobody ever liked in the playtesting of the game. This actually hits on a bunch of levels. The game is about in-fiction difficulties, not mechanical, rules-based difficulties. Nor is the game about zero-to-hero character arcs, it’s about characters that become more fleshed-out and defined over the course of play. And players have already decided how difficult certain actions will be for their characters by choosing their stat scores.

    Not that you have to use stats, though. You could use aspects instead.

    And you could reroll dice, sure. The point of the 2d6+stat system isn’t the dice you roll, it’s that you have three different results, and that you can get mixed results without the hassle that comes with Otherkind dice. The handling time in getting that result is the real issue—make it useful (Mythender) or make it low (AW), right?

    I feel like that covers everything? Talked a bit about moves, don’t use difficulty levels, you’re right about everything else. Oh, also: there’s no real “core” to AW. It’s a few different things nicely fit together.

    Hope that helps.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      This is great! A couple things I feel like adding, which frankly probably don’t need to be added but I’m feeling self-indulgent.

      Playbooks aren’t essential, but it’s worth noting that basic moves say how the characters are all alike and special moves say how they are different, usually a lot more so than variable stat scores do.

      Certainly. I am a fan of character differentiation, and moves do that. Moves don’t necessarily have to be collected as discrete playbooks. (And in the case of P&P, they’re randomly generated as you gain levels.)

      Oh, also: there’s no real “core” to AW. It’s a few different things nicely fit together.

      I don’t agree with this, but you saying it has helped me realize why. See, I also worked on two games that effectively don’t have a “core”: Fate and Cortex Plus. (Yes, I co-designed Fate Core, but in that we added more to the game…I’m getting ahead of myself.)

      There are two things: the ethos and the trappings. The ethos is about what’s truly fundamental to a give game’s whole execution. Cortex Plus & Fate look similar on the surface, but have a wildly different enough ethos that you can’t play one game with the other and expect something that feels the same. The three outcomes and hard choices are part of the AW ethos.

      The trappings are the things that people come to expect of a game, especially the bits that if missing people would say “that isn’t X game.” The 2d6 element and playbooks are trappings of AW. When we build Core, we did streamline the underlying engine, but we also had to service the trappings people were going to expect, like the skill lists akin to other Fate games as well as stunts. (And, naturally, the aspects chapter is as long as it is due to needing to explain the breadth of a simple mechanic.)

      So, perhaps I’m really asking two questions: what’s core and what’re trappings that if removed would appear to alienate? Seems like the core is the easier question, as we’ve well answered it. The other, well, that’s definitely an opinion thing, but it’s interesting.

      – Ryan

    • Johnstone says:

      Hm, it could be a semantics thing. I’m not familiar with either Cortex Plus or Fate Core so I can’t make some sort of comparison there where I could better see your perspective, but I can point to some examples of AW-hacks that might better illustrate mine.

      Take World of Dungeons on the one hand. It has the 2d6+stat and 4 options (the 12+ becoming normal), but no moves and none of the choosing options off a list that tend to go with them. You just roll when you think you should roll. A few extra rules, mostly drawn from D&D and that’s it. There’s no GM section. But it’s still recognizably drawn from AW.

      Then take the latest version of Undying. It has playbooks and moves, complete with picking options from lists, but no dice. It has stats of a kind (status, blood, and humanity) but they are not very static and don’t do the same thing. It has a GM section.

      These two games have nothing in common aside from being AW hacks and looking like it. Who knows? There might even be room for a third game that is still recognizably derived from AW that has nothing in common with either of these two–a GMless game that uses the workspace rules and countdown clocks as its main rules and has aspects instead of stats or something.

      So that’s what I mean when I say there’s no “core.” There isn’t one specific thing, probably not even two specific things, that any and all AW-derived games need in order to maintain that connection. There’s a selection of things. I can definitely see a central theme running through AW and how the components have been molded around it. Hard choices are part of it, though I’m not so sure if 3 outcomes is, necessarily. And every hack has a different central theme, so each one has to mold its components differently and discard what it doesn’t need (or keep what it doesn’t need and just be kludgy and awkward I guess).

      But I get where you’re coming from with trappings and alienating people. That does feel like a different question to me, because it’s about very distinct and obvious elements of the game. I dunno if there’s a good answer for that though. AW has been out for less than 3 years and the audience for it is still forming their opinions and expectations. It’s entirely possible that whatever you make could have a significant impact on those expectations.

      And what the hell, since you also wrote that you’re pondering hacking Dungeon World specifically, I have a few thoughts there (and maybe this will be a good answer after all?): the six stats, hit points, levels, and rolling damage I think are part of the “ethos” it has inherited from D&D (character classes too I guess, but those I think are second-tier D&D ethos, to coin a bizarre-sounding phrase). DW also does away with characters being discrete, turn-based actors in the fiction, which is part of the ethos of D&D, which I think is the biggest difference between the two (or between DW and the billions of D&Ds). I think if you want people to say “oh, this is like Dungeon World only a little different” you probably need to keep the six stats or something visibly derived from them, the 2d6/3 outcomes resolution, basic and special moves, the hit points and probably rolling for damage. Maybe levels, or maybe just something sort of similar, the way you can probably get away with no proper character classes. And then some agendas, principles, and moves for the GM, but they could be quite different. With all that stuff, it might end up being seen more as a DW-hack than as an AW-hack.

  3. Andy says:

    I think that GM Moves might be the glue that brings it all together. The thing is, the GM Moves, combined with the Principles and Agenda, are one of the biggest cornerstones that shape the game’s tone. “Abruptly make the situation into an existential metaphor” could be just as much of a GM move as “separate them”. Notice that each move simply frames the game and the story in a different way.

    In one sense, the GM moves are the rules of the game’s genre. “These are the things that will happen to characters.”