A while back a friend asked for advice about how to use the GM tools in Powered by the Apocalypse games such as the Warren and Night Witches. I’m expanding on my response to her here in case someone else finds it valuable.
Understanding the Game Master Mechanics
The key to using the GM sections of any of the excellent PbtA game books is to realize that they are essentially reminders and guidelines for setting the tone and having the conversation rather than specific mechanics. Each book lays this out in slightly different ways, so one might click for you more than others, but the general ideas are all the same.
You should read that section of the rules thoroughly before playing and review the agendas, principles, and moves again between sessions to remind yourself about things you might do differently next time. Most of it, however, is the same sort of scene-setting you’ve probably done while GMing other games, or as a player in GM-less games like Fiasco.
The Flow of Soft and Hard Moves
The main differences are in the flow of Soft and Hard moves. The various GM texts don’t usually tell you which moves are which- it’s a matter of tone, situation, expectations, and consequences.
For example, I think most PbtA GMs will start with questions that then lead into soft moves. “Who is the most important rabbit in the warren?” “His name is Foxglove”. “Cool. Why is he out to get you?”
The soft move here is, essentially, “reveal an impending threat” which serves your principles (“name every animal” and “make the world seem real”) and sets up a future conflict.
As soon as things get rolling, you glance at your notes to decide where to start and you see that NPC’s name. Another soft move (“put someone in a spot”)- “You’re outside, chewing some sweet grass, when a shadow falls over you. ‘What are you doing in my patch, runt? Get out of here before I kick your tail!’ The other rabbits are watching as Foxglove looms over you. What do you do?”
At this point the player will choose a response which will probably result in a move- trying to run, or fight, or talk to Foxglove, or get support from others. When they roll, your job as GM is to interpret mixed results (offering them a hard bargain on a 7-9, for example) or taking their botch and making a Hard move.
A Hard move is usually the result of something you’ve already telegraphed- in this case, a thumping by a bully. There’s no reason to roll here, you can just do what you want- in the Warren that might be giving them Panic or even a Scar. It might also be setting them up for something worse, such as narrating that they’ve run terrified into the dangerous woods.
In other words, soft moves set the players up to respond (“what do you do?”) and Hard moves are essentially GM fiat that follows the fiction.
GM Moves and Player Agency
Another way to look at the difference between Soft Moves and Hard moves is agency, and the degree to which the GM creates situations that take it away. Soft moves set the stage for Hard moves, telegraphing the consequences and creating opportunities for players to act.
if the GM says “there’s a truck coming at you! What do you do?”that’s a Soft move (“Reveal an Impending Threat”) that leaves the player with most of the agency. They get to make a choice and possibly avoid a gruesome outcome.
in the Warren, you might also say, “there’s a truck coming. If you want to try to cross the road, you’ll need roll Resist Panic first.” This is still a Soft move, giving the players an opportunity to make a move and roll the dice.
Alternately, the GM might say “As you cross the road, you hear a roar and see lights coming! Take +1 Panic right now, and then tell me what you do.” This is a common Hard move (“add to their Panic”) that the player can’t avoid but has a relatively small impact in the moment.
Either of these two options might lead to Panicking, which mechanically takes a lot of agency away, but that only happens gradually as their Panic increases throughout the game. They’ve seen this moment coming, and had opportunities to Relax and bring their Panic down. Panicking is essentially a special GM Hard move.
Choosing not to set the stage with Soft moves is a very hard move indeed, and might feel unfair to the players. Framing a scene that aggressively (“Suddenly you’re hit by a truck, take a Scar”) should be handled carefully, and probably only after you’ve had a discussion about tone with the players. (see the “Dark Mode” section in the Warren for details on that).