One of the core philosophies present in Apocalypse World and related games is the idea that (as a GM) one should never plan anything in advance. Okay, it's quite a bit more nuanced than that; you're actively encouraged to plan without sticking to your prep, there are certain specific ways in which you're explicitly allowed to use preplanned material, but overall improvisation is the rule - literally. Quoting from Dungeon World:

This is how you play to find out what happens. You’re sharing in the fun of finding out how the characters react to and change the world you’re portraying. You’re all participants in a great adventure that’s unfolding. So really, don’t plan too hard. The rules of the game will fight you. It’s fun to see how things unfold, trust us.

And I do trust them! It is fun to see how things unfold. But that's not the only type of fun I like. And it's slightly unfortunate when I often find myself really liking and wanting to retain many of the other tenets of AE games without necessarily wanting to throw all preparation to the wind.

Sometimes1, I like elaborate setpieces, I like tightly woven plots, I like the feeling of a complex world. I like being able to foreshadow future developments and provide shocking revelations and present well-thought-out moral dilemmas and do all sorts of other things that are difficult in improvisation2.

I'd like to know to what extent it's possible to play (or design) a theoretical Apocalypse Engine game without the intentional constraint of mandated improvisational GMing. What breaks when you pull improvisational GMing out, and what needs to break in the process of pulling improvisational GMing out? Off the top of my head, I can think of the following as examples of Apocalypse Engine things that I'm interested in seeing if and how they can make the transition:

  • Making moves in order to represent characters taking actions as players describe the fiction.
  • Purely player-facing die rolls.
  • Asking questions to let players establish setting or details
  • Asking questions as a method of creating complications in player actions.
  • Moves with the ability to affect the fiction in a storylike manner (e.g, declaring the existence of a secret door by rolling well on searching for one)
  • Representing dungeons, plagues, curses, towns, and similar things as entities with their own moves.
  • Equipment tags.
  • PC-NPC-PC triangles.

But this is far from an exhaustive list!

Optimally, I'm looking for an answer that describes how an Apocalypse Engine game the answerer experienced was intentionally made less improvisational - I'm sure that there are many examples of GMs failing to understand the AE rules properly and thinking that it didn't place any constraints on their power3, but that's not the situation I'm looking for advice with.

I'd also be happy with an answer that points me to a published AE game I'm not aware of that attempts to do what I'm describing here, or one that provides supported arguments as to how it could be done and what the likely outcome would be.

1 - Okay, maybe "all the time".

2 - Well, at least, I find them difficult in improvisation. My background is theater; they're certainly more difficult to pull off in improvisational drama.

3 - Myself included.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you want to try to do this with AWE instead of with a system which is alread suited to non-improv gamemastering? It might help to know this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beanluc
    Jul 14, 2016 at 7:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Beanluc Hmm. That's a question that takes a reasonable amount of explanation to answer properly. Basically, I first came to AWE as a player, and I liked it a huge amount; I particularly was drawn to fiction-first play, the simple but powerful and flexible nature of fiction-triggered moves, the flavor steeped into the character playbooks, the way the GM asked questions to define things about our characters, and the lightweight die mechanics. And the three-outcome rolls. Later, reading the GM sections, I also fell in love with the concept of Fronts and environment moves. But... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2016 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ When I run AWE games, it isn't fun. I'm actually not entirely certain why, but a friend suggested (and I agree) that the chief reason is probably because I don't enjoy the improvisationality of AWE GMing. An answer like this one is fine in theory but in practice... is awkward and pedantic? Cramps my style? That's annoyingly imprecise, but I'm not sure how else to put it. But I like all the other thing about AWE so much! So... I guess I'm looking for a way to have as much AWE-ness as possible without the part that I don't enjoy running. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2016 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ As the author of that answer, I totally understand how a) so many parts of the PbtE engine are awesome and wanted, yet b) its GMing setup could cramp someone's style. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2016 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @acomputingpun – I have problems understanding what kind of improvisation and prep you enjoy and what you don't enjoy, and I think it would help this question. Player-side creating secret doors is not a thing I would normally associate with high-prep gaming, and on the other hand picking GM moves and running with them to me removes improvisational freedom, where “play that scene out” (‘ask nicely’) would be more free-form and improvisational in my book. Can you explain? \$\endgroup\$
    – Anaphory
    Jul 17, 2016 at 17:57

2 Answers 2


I can't imagine running any campaign that isn't improvisational to some degree. I am running a Dungeon World campaign which is more traditional in campaign design because my players come from more of a D&D background, so I'm working from that perspective. That works fine- effectively my fronts are running in a sandbox and the players get to choose where they go and what they do but they often look to me to give them a direction when they aren't sure where to go next or what to do. My goal is not to restrict the agency of the players or the power of the moves, however - if anything I'm trying to guide them into more of a DW mindset - but the consequence of the set-up is that the game we are playing is carried more on my shoulders as a GM in narrative and worldbuilding terms rather than the constant collaborative efforts that characterise the game in its purest form.

I think the biggest element to this is the fundamental guideline of "Draw maps, leave blanks" - I apply that to everything I am doing as the game develops. I know in general what might happen, I know what the various fronts and groups in the world are doing in general and then we learn the details as the PCs interact with them. Then I can set up problems for the players to solve without knowing how they are going to actually solve them- that is where the improvisation really kicks in.

To look at the things you are interested in:

  • Elaborate setpieces - these are often "grand finale" type situations, in which case if the players get towards the location of that finale you have an opportunity to bring them into play. In general I find that it's fairly clear where the players are headed in the next few sessions, so a setpiece in that time range is easier to prepare if you have one in mind. However never underestimate the power of failed rolls escalating to turn something seemingly trivial into an elaborate setpiece in its own right. Also once your players hit that grand location, you have no control over what they will do, so it doesn't get to play out like a cut scene and - I would argue it shouldn't. One thing that can be a big help in this situation is the ability to add custom moves for specific situations and environments - there is a knack to designing a move in the success/partial-success format that is fun and interesting, but there is a lot of good advice on it around so if your characters suddenly need to operate a complex magical cannon, pilot a mysterious ancient vehicle or whatever else you can imagine, you can create specific moves for them that empower them to respond but also guide them towards actions that might be more interesting and fit with the narrative.
  • tightly woven plots - it is very hard in general to have a tightly woven plot without detracting from your players' agency, but if you know what the other agents in the world are doing then you can have some very taut plots running and they can also respond in interesting ways to the way the PCs behave. I find the idea of NPC agency and response probably more interesting than having a set of pre-wired plots that the player characters can slot into.
  • The feeling of a complex world - this comes down to how much worldbuilding you do. With the game I am running now, the players weren't that invested in the worldbuilding so I ended up doing the majority of it so I have an outline of history and as I need to know more about a specific area I fill that in. However I do still use the approach of bringing their ideas into the game, but as ever once they have put something in the world, I own it as GM and will use it as I see fit.
  • Being able to foreshadow future developments and provide shocking revelations This is very much what Dungeon World's Fronts are designed for - you have your dread portents that indicate the progress of a front and should foreshadow the future. Revelations are almost always a connection between some things that we already knew but which we hadn't connected - that can be easier if you have spaces in your background that allow you to build those connections.
  • Present well-thought-out moral dilemmas - certainly Dungeon World favours the principle of offering the players hard choices and making those morally interesting rather than simple and immediate is purely a question of being aware of what dilemmas are available to you. A little like the setpieces ( or weather forecasts ) it's easier to predict what the players will do in the next couple of sessions and so try to have a few ideas on hand in case the opportunity comes up to use them. For a great example of using improvisational *World gameplay to create something of considerable substance I definitely recommend Friends At The Table which is a tremendous podcast.

So I think you can find the things you are looking for in this family of game, but if you want more control then maybe you should look for a game that offers you that by design- there are plenty of them around.

(As an aside, we're podcasting this game, so you can hear how it goes from the link on my profile, but bear in mind that we're basically all idiots, so although hilarity ensues it's probably the opposite of a textbook guide to running or playing Dungeon World. )

  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer is good advice, but I don't feel as though it really answers the question; it's basically saying "hey, so, this is how AWE as written can work improvisationally - if you want to do things differently, maybe you should play a different system". \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2016 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @acomputingpun Your question says "These are things I like, that I find difficult to put in AWE games." This answer says "This is how to accomplish those things in AWE games." It may not be what you specifically asked for, but it is addressing the problem you are experiencing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adeptus
    Jul 15, 2016 at 2:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @acomputingpun I know exactly what you mean - this is an inexact fit for your question because I 'm not sure that the *World starting point is a perfect fit for what you are talking about doing because it places player agency above most other things, but as Adeptus observes, you said what your priorities are and I feel as though I can achieve all of those without needing to change much about the system. \$\endgroup\$
    – glenatron
    Jul 15, 2016 at 10:02

TL;DR: This answer will not cite experience, because overall, this is not my play style, and when I do want to play something high-prep, I play something else. That being said, I will try to use the rules to prove that the expressed play style of yourself is not beyond what Dungeon World can cater to, because Dungeon World's prep rules extend quite far and your understanding of “non-improvisational” is not so non-improvisational that it would necessarily break games Powered by the Apocalypse.

Draw Maps…

there are certain specific ways in which you're explicitly allowed to use preplanned material

and you should start by making as much use of them as the rules allow – Let's see how they permit you to do the things you want and where they fall short.

Agenda and Principles.

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens […] This is how you play to find out what happens. You’re sharing in the fun of finding out how the characters react to and change the world you’re portraying. You’re all participants in a great adventure that’s unfolding. So really, don’t plan too hard. The rules of the game will fight you. It’s fun to see how things unfold, trust us.

The other two Agenda items aren't of concern. The third one, at its core, tells you to not presuppose what the characters will do to the world and how the world reacts to that. Once you drop this core tenet, you are very much railroading or playing for an audience – and from your other desires, it's clear that that's not your intention. So actually, this does not mean that your play style is different from DW's. Don't plan too hard, but do plan! (And do keep your Fronts' Stakes open, to remind you of this.)

Sometimes, I like elaborate setpieces, I like tightly woven plots, I like the feeling of a complex world.

Yes! That's an extension of your Principles!

  • Give every monster life
  • Name every person
  • Think offscreen, too

If you look at the description of these and other principles, it's obvious that – while the system does not force you to build elaborate set pieces and close intrigues – they don't put those out of your reach, either: They talk a lot about “the consistency of Dungeon World”, “straightforward outcome of their actions”, set pieces' own complex motivations, “goals or opinions”, and how not everything happens in front of the players, leaving you room to advance plots somewhere else.


Fronts are how you actually plan in Dungeon World, so whe should look at what they provide for your specifications. You build Fronts, with their Grim Portents and Impending Doom and Dangers. Now your Campaign Front will “only” contain 2 or 3 dangers, and by the rules, you will concentrate on “only” one Adventure Front with 2 or 3 dangers at a time, but that's quite a bit to keep mental track of over one adventure already, and if you can, nothing in the big-picture rules prevents you from ramping up that number and complexity.

Fronts are there precisely there to allow you to

foreshadow future developments and provide shocking revelations and present well-thought-out moral dilemmas and do all sorts of other things that are difficult in improvisation.

The Grim Portents and the Impending Doom of a front are all about noting down how the future developments look like. Dangers are the way to provide you with elaborate setpieces and prepare the presentation of well-thought-out moral dilemmas: A few of the Danger moves (p. 188 ff.) are particularly worth pointing out here, in addition to the fact that Ambitious Organizations are listed as a danger type (in my experience, Ambitious Organizations very much coincide with the type of play you describe).

  • Extract a promise in exchange for a boon
  • Expose someone to a Truth, welcome or otherwise
  • Tempt someone with promises
  • Declare war […] without hesitation
  • Leave lingering effects on an inhabitant or visitor

GM Moves

But even beyond the specific Danger moves, there are three GM moves that very closely match your implicit moves:

  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Tell them the […] consequences and ask

Nothing here says the that the signs, unwelcome truth or consequences need to be improvised. Quite the opposite! Following from your Things to Do (“Exploit your prep”), your Agenda (“Portray a fantastic world”) and your principles (see above), it's very clear that you are supposed to take these from what you have already established and prepared, so it's okay to note down such ideas with your Fronts. Just make sure that you still “Make a Move that Follows” instead of randomly throwing your prep at players!

And don't forget that one of your Moves (not listed there, but by Everything a GM can Do is a Move it is one) is to invent a new World Move, and those can very much elaborate your set pieces, reflect more plot-weaving and give difficult choices, without having to be thought up on the spot.

… Leave Blanks

So, where are the stumbling stones for high prep? And for the moment, I can only point these out and not give you evidence-based advice how much they lead to conflict between your play style and rules Powered by the Apocalypse and how to fix that, please down-vote if you find that disappointing.


Draw maps, leave blanks When you draw a map, don't try to make it complete.

it says. So if you wanted to fill a complete village to the last detail, you would be working against this Principle. But it goes on to say

As you'll play, you get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration.

That means, a main purpose of this principle is to give yourself as the GM space to expand into when the players surprise you. Given that you want to keep “Asking questions to let players establish setting or details”, you will either have to keep this Principle, or damn players' contributions to meaninglessness, in which case what are you keeping this thing for?


Part of playing to find out what happens is explicitly not knowing everything

This would normally be a thing that I don't associate with high-prep play, but on the one hand, you explicitly want to keep that element, and on the other hand, the explanation of this principle restricts itself to enforcing that you keep the question “What do you do?” open, so there's actually no conflict here. Actually, I'm pretty sure that I will be hard-pressed to find any example of a question “crossing the line” in the DW rules.

If you want to keep “Moves with the ability to affect the fiction in a storylike manner (e.g, declaring the existence of a secret door by rolling well on searching for one)”, you just can't know everything before all such Moves have been used (i.e. at the end of the campaign).

(3) First-session Goals, in particular

  • Look for interesting facts
  • Use what they give you

These is probably the hardest first-session Goal to do in a high-prep game, because in a high-prep game you likely want to start with some Fronts prepared. For one-shots, I do prepare a front, but I am very willing to only use part or nothing of it if character creation turns out interesting.

I therefore think that the thing that needs most change is the first session, for which you have to radically alter the first session Goals and thus the procedure. From one-shots, where this is very much necessary, as well, I get the impression that it is possible without sacrificing the other things over the rest of the campaign, but I will have to gather evidence on how this actually works.


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